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How do Artists Use a Color Wheel?

Malcolm Tatum
Updated May 23, 2024
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Artists of all types, from painters to quiltmakers, depend on the application of the color wheel to their work. While some choose to use this tool in a very traditional manner, others employ some techniques that are more cutting edge. It is designed around the recognition of the three primary colors — red, blue, and yellow — that form the basis for all other colors and hues.

Spaced evenly around the wheel, the device also includes the representation of what are understood to be the secondary colors. Secondary colors are created by making use of the primary colors that are found on each side of the secondary color. For example, green is a secondary color and will be found on the wheel between blue and yellow, while orange will be found between yellow and red. It is understood that the secondary colors are composed of equal portions of the two primary colors involved. In between are an infinite number of percentage combinations that help to make up all the different colors and hues known today.

Standard color theory dictates that the most combinations of colors will be used in a particular fashion. For example, many painters make good use of what is referred to as the geometrical mixing method. This involves making use of the distance between any to colors on the wheel, and implementing hues and shades into the created piece of art that bring forth images that seem to be in harmony with one another. The artist will tend to base the final assortment of hues more on the actual hues of paint that are created through random combinations, although color wheels help form a basis for the actual mixing.

In a different application, quilters tend to look for contrast in the materials they use to create unique quilt designs. This process employs the use of basic color theory, which dictates that using hues that are opposite one another on the color wheel is an excellent way to create colorful and varied designs to the finished product. More structured than the geometrical mixing method, the result is nevertheless often quite appealing to the eye.

There is no one right way to use a color wheel. While it serves as a great starting point for inspiration, different artists will vary in just how much they rely upon the actual use of the wheel. While providing a basis for working out the hues, shades, and colors that will be included in the work, the artist is always free to experiment with combinations and mixes that are out of the ordinary.

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Malcolm Tatum
By Malcolm Tatum , Writer
Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing to become a full-time freelance writer. He has contributed articles to a variety of print and online publications, including Musical Expert, and his work has also been featured in poetry collections, devotional anthologies, and newspapers. When not writing, Malcolm enjoys collecting vinyl records, following minor league baseball, and cycling.

Discussion Comments

By healthy4life — On Sep 13, 2012

I like to use an analogous color wheel to design my clothing. I always sketch out and paint my designs before cutting and sewing them, and this allows me to see if the colors I've selected look good together.

I pick three colors that are side by side on the color wheel. For a spring dress, I chose yellow, yellow-orange, and orange. The colors were similar, but they were just different enough to provide some contrast.

I made the upper part of the dress yellow, and I sewed a four-inch strip of yellow-orange material about halfway between the waistline and the knees. Under this, I attached a five-inch section of orange material, and it made up the hemline.

By orangey03 — On Sep 12, 2012

@shell4life – I have noticed that colors that occur together in nature in plants, like the fuschia and spring green that you mentioned, tend do go well together in art and interior design, as well. Your den colors made me think of my petunias. The flowers are a deep fuschia, and the stems and leaves are light green.

Nature is like the perfect color wheel. You can find complementary colors in the same plant everywhere you look. Tomatoes are red, and their vines are green, for example.

By lighth0se33 — On Sep 12, 2012

I always check a color wheel for complementary colors when painting. I've heard that using two opposites side by side on a canvas makes both of them stand out more, and I've found that this is true.

Also, if you want to do a shaded area on a color but you don't want to add black or gray to it, you can make it darker and duller by adding a small amount of its complementary color. This results in a more natural shadow than you could achieve with black paint.

By shell4life — On Sep 11, 2012

I've always had an eye for art, so I decided to pick my own paint and curtain colors for my new house. I used my friends color wheel chart, and it showed me that colors I never thought about pairing actually do look good together.

Orange and blue are opposites on the color wheel. I got some orange curtains with blue valances and sashes, and the combination was very powerful. It didn't clash at all.

Also, for my den, I used spring green and dark fuschia. This was another combination that worked surprisingly well.

By anon289312 — On Sep 03, 2012

@anon25758: You got it. The red, yellow blue color wheel is very wrong. It won't make magenta or cyan. Not only are red-yellow-blue the wrong primaries, they make the wrong secondaries and wrong split-complements. Interior decorators can't use it, ad agencies can't use it. In fact, anyone working with color can't use it.

By anon131820 — On Dec 04, 2010

@anon25758: you are confusing additive and subtractive color mixing. One is for color mixing with pigments as used by painters, etc; the other is for on-screen mixing.

By anon25954 — On Feb 05, 2009

The color wheel was devised with the primary colors of light in mind - red, blue, and yellow. Magenta and cyan are considered to be subtractive primaries for pigment. It is interesting to note that if you want to make magenta even "more magenta", adding red and blue will enhance the purplish qualities of this purplish red hue.

By anon25758 — On Feb 03, 2009

So how do you make magenta or cyan? Cyan and magenta make blue, magenta and yellow make red. So what's with calling the red-yellow-blue primaries?

Malcolm Tatum

Malcolm Tatum


Malcolm Tatum, a former teleconferencing industry professional, followed his passion for trivia, research, and writing...
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