Color Theory

Checkout the basics of color wheel and know how it works. Study the relationship between primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Learn about color schemes.

Color brings life to almost everything under the sun! The language of colors is the most common language used without realizing it. We use color codes every day in our life and each color plays an important role.

The most powerful tool for visual communication is colors. They have the power to express thoughts, influence mood, and influence decision-making.

When you start painting, you realize choosing the right color scheme is one of the most important steps of the process. The chosen color scheme will express your ideas and give life to the artwork by adding vibrant pigments and completing the look and feel of your painting.

Several color choices are available, whether you choose a color for painting a wall, furniture, house, brand, logo, or anything similar. How do you make the right choice? Picking the right color from the options available is a tiresome task if you are unaware of the basics. The basics of understanding color is `Color Theory`. Let us see understand the color theory.

What is Color Theory?

Color theory is the basis for primary rules around the colors to create aesthetically appealing visuals. It can also be considered a practical guide on choosing a color scheme.

A color scheme is a combination of colors used in a painting, design, or illustration. There are various color palettes already available. Each palette makes us feel different due to the combination of colors used.

Colors express feelings that are primarily the same for all humans in any given location. Understanding the science behind the color theory also helps us learn how color evokes a certain vibe or emotion.

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary  

Let us understand the first chapter of color theory. You would have heard of Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary colors. What are they? Let's check out.

Primary Secondary Tertiary Colors

Primary Colors -  They cannot be created by mixing any colors. Hence they are primary. These three primary colors create other colors.

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

Secondary Colors - When any two primary colors are combined, it creates a secondary color.  We can create three secondary colors by combining any two of the primary colors at a time.

  • Yellow + Blue = Green
  • Red + Yellow = Orange
  • Blue + Red = Purple

Tertiary Colors - When you mix one primary with the nearest secondary color, it will produce a tertiary color. Remember, only the nearest secondary will work.

  •  Red-Orange
  • Yellow-Orange
  • Yellow-Green
  • Blue-Green
  • Blue-Violet
  • Red-Violet

The Color Wheel: A Visual Tool

color wheel showing primary seconary tertiary colors

The color wheel is a diagram of colors placed in a sequence where colors are placed with some relation to each other. Broadly the colors in the color wheel are divided into three categories Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary, as described above. For any artist, this is the starting point of color theory.

The color wheel represents the elemental 12 colors and their extended range of shades, tints, and tones. This representation makes it easy to select the colors because you see how colors relate to each other when placed together.

Warm and Cool Colors

You may have noticed some colors like yellow makes the room warm and bright, while a sky blue color can make you feel relaxed and cool you down. It is because colors have temperature and its relative. Warm and Cool are two broader categories of colors.

When you draw a line through the center of the wheel, most colors on the left side are cool colors (blues, greens, purples) and colors on the right side are warm colors (reds, oranges, yellows)

Understanding warm and cool colors can give you confidence in choosing a balanced color scheme for any artwork or in general. This knowledge will help to create color harmony in your composition.

So the funny story is, that warm colors can not be referred to as warm always, and cool colors are not always cool. Color temperature is a relative value that depends upon the reference in which they are used.

A color appears warm when placed beside one color, but the same color seems cool next to a different color.  Warm or cool color is decided based on the temperature of the colors used alongside.

When you start identifying the color temperature, you will be better at mixing colors. The color wheel is an excellent tool for comparing colors.

How to use warm and cool colors in art? 

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think of summer or warm days? Sun, fire, heat, right? All warm colors are present in these objects. When you think of cool things, you get images of water, ice, snow and even sky.  

Each color has a temperature which helps to set a mood. Warm colors show emotions of intense joy and passion. Cool color makes you feel relaxed, refreshed, and calm. 

Remember, warm colors make the object look closer, while cool colors may appear farther. When choosing the colors, one should keep the color cool and warm colors in mind. A good balance between them will create spectacular artwork. 

In a landscape picture, mountains and sky are painted cool colors, while grass and streets are painted in warm colors. Some iconic acrylic painting artists have created beautiful paintings keeping warm and cool color schemes in mind.

Far off objects and backgrounds like the sky, mountains, or tonal ground are often in cool blue, yellow, or brown shades. The foreground or the nearby objects are painted in warm colors like greenery, figures, or any nearby objects.

Let us look at the popular types of color schemes in a color wheel:

Color Scheme


Monochromatic color schemes have a single color with variations of the color's tints, shades, and tones. This color scheme is straightforward and pleasing to the eyes as the colors are of the same shade and tone, which creates a soothing effect. 

An artist can give the picture a consistent look and feel by playing with the shades and tone.


Analogous color schemes use three related colors(placed side by side on the color wheel), where one color is the dominant color, and others support it. The supporting colors make the color scheme look more appealing. 

This is the color scheme when you want little to no contrast yet add some life to the design.


Primary complementary colors are opposites on the color wheel, for example, red and green. This color scheme grabs attention and attracts the viewer's eye as they create maximum contrast.

Use this color scheme carefully. Otherwise, they look unappealing. To get maximum from this scheme, dominate with one color and use another color as a highlighter.

Hue, shade, tint, and tone

Color, Shade Tint and Tone

By definition, Hue is a color. The degree of lightness, darkness, or strength of  color doesn't change by external factors. For example, a blue ball is blue irrespective of which time of day it is.

Variations of hues on the color wheel are tint, shade, and tone.

A tint is a hue to which white has been added. For example, orange + white = coral. They are mostly pastel shade colors and look softer.

A tone is a color to which grey has been added. This will lighten or darken the original hue, which means the hue's intensity will change. The color appears subtle or less intense as grey is a neutral color that makes the hue dull when added.

A shade is a color to which black is added. In layman's terms, we refer to shade as a lighter or darker version of any color. But technically, shade is a color in which you have added only black and not white. For example, white + black = grey, a shade of white.

There are hundreds of graphic apps, painting apps, and illustrator software available for digital art. Use the paintbrush tool to create different brush strokes using tint, tone, and shades of colors.


It is up to you as an artist to use the color wheel or not to use it. You can have all the information, but you choose to use whichever you feel is right. 

I suggest that one should try to experiment with color combinations from the color wheel. Take notes and create swatches for future reference. You can challenge these color schemes and develop something of your own. That's how you will know what works for you and what does not.

If you have ever tried Acrylic Pouring, you will know the color selection is crucial, especially in dirty pour and flip cups. You create undesired muddy color instead of WOW painting when colors are picked randomly.

It's good to have a color scheme and color wheel knowledge for making the right decision in your artwork and anytime when you have to choose colors. Remember, an art with color harmony and right balance appears more appealing to the viewers.

Happy Coloring!

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