Spinning the Colorwheel

Spinning the Color Wheel – Basic Color Theory (part 1)

Color is probably the most important ingredient in every visual artist’s toolbox. Think of colors as the notes composing a melody – they play their music on canvas, they set the mood, they awaken the emotion in a viewer. Color combinations can be both loud and quiet, serene or frightening, warm or cold. Never underestimate their power, for they can turn even the most tranquil landscape into a nightmare, and the most frightening linework into a joke (try to visualize a pink Venom- disturbing, right?).

So, obviously, we need to learn to use colors to our advantage.

First Things First – Color Theory Basics

primary colors

Red, Blue and Yellow – the primary colors.

Primary Colors

There are 3 primary colors- red, blue and yellow. Imagine them on a wheel, like this:

All other colors are a result of a mix between these three.


Secondary Colors

Purple, Orange and Green – the secondary colors

Secondary Colors

By mixing yellow and blue we get green, yellow and red results in orange and blue and red end up giving us purple. These are the secondary colors on the color wheel.



Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors and fancy words: amber, vermilion, magenta, violet, viridian and chartreuse.

Tertiary Colors

Now, let’s shake things up a bit. Again, by mixing every color with its neighbor we get tertiary colors: amber (yellow–orange), vermilion (red–orange), magenta (red–purple), violet (blue–purple), viridian (blue–green), and chartreuse (yellow–green) and we end up with the basic color wheel (and six new fancy words in the vocabulary).


But color theory is just that – theory. It feels a bit hollow without actually seeing it in action, and even so, in nature, primary colors are found sparsely and in small amounts. Colors are relative to their environment – objects not only have their own local color, they also absorbs the light and reflect back all the other colors. Moreover, by adding white to a color we get different tints, adding grey results in different tones, while shades are obtained by mixing colors with black. Basically, we are left with this:

Tints, shades and tones

Tints, shades and tones

So, yeah, we have plenty to work with.

Simply placing the colors on a wheel doesn’t mean much to developing a palette for an artwork, so in the next part of the tutorial: Spinning the Color Wheel: Mixing Colors I will show you how to mix and match – the most common color combinations in action, what they mean and when to use them. In the meantime, if you have any questions or thoughts about this article, or anything else art-related for that matter, feel free to drop me a line in the comments section below!

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  1. Pingback: Spinning the Color Wheel - Mixing Colors (part 2) | Arid Glamor

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