The Color Wheel

A color wheel is a circular chart that represents a set range of colors and the relationships between these colors.

Below you will find a basic color wheel that shows 12 different colors. The wheel is divided into two main sections: On the right side we have warm colors…and the left side cool colors. Warm and cold refers to the temperature of a color. Red or orange would be considered warm colors. Blue and purple would be cold.

If you draw triangular lines from the yellow sector, you will find blue and red. These three colors are called primary colors. When you mix two primary colors, you get a secondary color. The three main secondary colors in this chart would be: green, purple, and orange.

Basic mixing between primary colors will produce the following secondary colors:

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


Each color has a complimentary color. The complimentary color is on the exact opposite side of the color wheel. In this color wheel, orange would be the complimentary color of blue. Red would be the compliment of green.

Complimentary colors play an important role when mixing colors and also when deciding on which color scheme to use. We will later discuss more on color schemes.


color wheel

Mixing a Neutral Color

When mixing two colors that are compliments to each other, a neutral color forms. For example: Orange and blue will create a neutral. A neutral color is usually a muddy brown or purplish color. Neutrals play an important role in creating color harmony. We will study paintings later to see how a neutral is used.

complimentary colors

This example shows Vermilion red and Cerulean blue mixed together to form a neutral grey. These two colors are opposite to each other on the color wheel. They are each other’s compliment.

We know that red and blue would create violet. But in this case the result is more like a muddy grey.


complimentary colors

This is another example of creating a neutral color by mixing two complimentary colors. In this case the two colors are Violet and Sap Green. Both colors are on the opposite end of the color wheel. Mixed together it will create a brownish color.


Let’s take a look and see how to create a pure violet color.


Mixing a Pure Color

Each primary color can either bend towards being cooler or warmer. Let’s take blue as an example:


Phtalo blue is probably closest to being the primary blue. To the right of Phtalo blue we get warmer colors. Ultramarine blue is therefore a slightly warmer blue because it has some red, making it warmer. Cerulean blue falls on the cooler side because there are slight traces of yellow in it.


how to mix purple

A pure color can be mixed when you choose two colors that are closer to each other on the color wheel. Both colors will have either warm OR cool attributes. A pure violet can be created when mixing Ultramarine(warm) and Alizarin Crimson(red..also warm).

You can also see from this mix that adding more red would create a warmer violet. Adding more blue would make the violet cooler.

Cerulean blue(cooler) and Permanent Red(warm) would create a dead violet color.

Monochromatic Scheme

Monochromatic paintings are created by using a limited palette of one main color and adding black and white paint to create darker and lighter values.


Here you will see a monochromatic scale with Yellow Ochre as the main color. To create the monochromatic painting, the artist will paint using only these color options. Monochromatic paintings can be very pleasing to the eye and is an excellent way for the artist to practice correct value placement.

mono_chromatic_scale _5a

These images show how value affects the overall appearance of a painting. In some instances the sky is lighter in value due to brighter sunlight or darker in value where less light falls through the sky.

mono_chromatic_scale _6

Complimentary Colors

In the first section we described what a complimentary color is. Let’s see how two complimentary colors can work together in a painting.


This painting was done by using Cadmium Orange and Phtalo Blue. I painted the rocks by mixing the blue with a little orange. In some areas, on the rocks, you can see how a gray neutral color formed. I also used the Cadmium to create different values by adding more water.

The sky is brighter and stronger in tone value but also in color intensity. The sand shows a lighter more subtle value.

Using compliments effectively will create a harmonious feel to the painting. Especially if the colors are more subtle in tone and intensity and not super bright.







This illustration shows the range of two complimentary colors. Each color can be lightened or darkened by adding white or black paint. Mixing the pure paint will create a variation of neutral color tones.

In this example I used Cadmium Red and Cerulean Blue.







Warm and Cool

You will also notice in both these examples that with complimentary colors, one color will be cool, whereas the other color will be warm.

Here we have a watercolor painting that was created using Cobalt Green and Alizarin Crimson. Both colors are the opposites on the color wheel. One color is cool and the other has a warm tone.

In the distance the values are lighter…drawing the eye in. The foreground and trees are pushed forward by making the values darker and intensifying the color tone.

Notice the areas where the green and red mix to form a neutral color tone.