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The Color Wheel

Why do blue and yellow look good together? What makes green and orange an appealing pair? The secret to why some color combos sail and others fail all comes down to color theory -- and that brilliant tool, the color wheel.

The Color Wheel

A favorite of designers and artists, the wheel makes color relationships easy to see by dividing the spectrum into 12 basic hues: three primary colors, three secondaries, and six tertiaries.

Primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. These colors are pure -- you can't create them from other colors, and all other colors are created from them. Secondary colors are orange, green, and violet. They line up between the primaries on the color wheel because they are formed when equal parts of two primary colors are combined. Tertiary colors are formed by mixing a primary color with a secondary color next to it on the color wheel. With each blending -- primary with primary, then primary with secondary -- the resulting hues become less vivid, as seen in the color wheel opposite.

How the Color Wheel Works

Using the Color Wheel to Build Color Schemes

The color wheel helps you mix colors to get palettes with varying degrees of contrast. Four common types of color schemes:

Monochromatic Scheme: These tone-on-tone combinations use several shades (adding black) and tints (adding white) of a single hue for a subtle palette. Think pale blue, sky blue, and navy.

Analogous Scheme: For a bit more contrast, an analogous palette includes colors found side by side on the wheel, such as orange, yellow, and green, for a colorful but relaxing feel.

Contrast: A triad creates an adventurous palette by using three hues evenly spaced on the wheel, such as blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange, for vivid contrast with balanced colors.

Complementary Scheme: This is the most dynamic -- yet simple -- color scheme. Using two hues opposite each other on the color wheel, such as blue and orange, is guaranteed to add energy to any room.

Color can also affect emotional responses and create a mood. Greens tend to soothe, for instance, while yellows are uplifting and energetic. Bold reds are passionate and daring, but soft pink (a tint of red) is considered sweet and delicate. Blues are perceived as calming and quiet; oranges are warm and cozy; and purple, a truly complex color, can be seen as sexy or spiritual. Colors are considered warm or cool because of association. In our minds we compare reds, oranges, and yellows with the warmth of the sun and fire. Blues, greens, and violets are cool because of their association with water, sky, and foliage. As you create a color palette, your scheme should never be all warm colors or all cool colors. Let one dominate and set the overall tone of the room, but be sure to include elements that offer contrast.

Color Terms

Analogous Colors

Analogous: Neighbors on the color wheel

Chroma: A color's brightness or dullness

Complementary Colors

Complementary: Opposites on the color wheel, which appear brighter when they are used together (examples: yellow and purple, red and green, blue and orange)

Neutral: Black, white, brown, and gray

Secondary Colors

Secondary: A combination of equal parts of two primary colors (secondary colors are green, orange, purple)

Shade: Any color with black added; also refers to slight variations in a color

Primary Colors

Primary: Pure colors -- red, yellow, and blue -- that combine to create all other colors on the wheel

Split Complementary

Split Complementary: The grouping of a color with the two hues analogous to its complementary color (yellow with red-violet and blue-violet, for example)

Triad: Any three colors equally spaced on the color wheel, one of which usually takes precedence in a color scheme (yellow-orange, blue-green, and red-violet, for example)

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary: A combination of equal parts of a primary and a secondary color

Tint: Any color with white added

Tone: A color's intensity -- its degree of lightness or darkness


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