How to Create and Use Painting Color Wheels

How to Create and Use Painting Color Wheels

Mixing and Using Color

mixing and using color with use of the color wheelColor is a very important part of our lives, from our home decor to appreciation of our surroundings to our creation of artworks.  Learning how to create and use painting color wheels will help you in planning and executing any piece of art.

What are Painting Color Wheels?

Color wheels are attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, who, in 1706, refracted light into colors with a prism.  He then made a color wheel, which, when spun, displayed a white light from the combination of colors.

Today, painters, designers, and artists of all kinds use painting color wheels as they plan their work.

There are three primary colors in the wheel, from which all other colors are derived:  Blue, red and yellow.

Then secondary colors are blended.  Red and blue make purple.  Blue and yellow combine to make green, and orange is a combination of red and yellow.

Mixing colors right gives harmony and impactFurther blending is by making combinations of primary and secondary colors to make red-violets or blue-greens, for example.

 Using the Colors to Get Impact

Some colors are warmer and some are downright cold.  The warmer colors are yellows to reds.  They appear to visually come forward in a painting.  Sunlight reflects on surfaces to give yellow glows that create warmth, for instance.  Cooler colors are generally greens and blues.  You will generally use cooler shades to show shadows and distance in a painting.  Sky and sea reflects on the landscape with cool light.

The juxtaposition of colors can affect whether they appear cool or warm…green is made up of blue and yellow, so when shown on a  blue background, as with waves in the sea, they appear cool.

The warmth or coolness of the colors are called the temperature of the painting.  You can use temperature to show refection of light and shadow, as well as to give closeness or distance in the depth of the work.

Similarly, you can use another feature of color to show distance or closeness in a painting.  This feature is called the intensity.  Intensity comes from a pureness of the pigment.

You will rarely see any pure primary colors in nature.

The colors around us are affected by the reflection of the sky, the light, the water if any, and even the air itself, so the colors we see are blended already.

There are many choices for using what we see- you can paint them in any colors you want or you can represent them realistically or impressionistically in something close to what you see, or you can brighten them, or fade them.

You can represent them in shapes that are exactly what you see, or impressions of what you see that range from complete abstract to suggestions.

In all your choices, you will be using color to convey temperature and intensity.  You can dilute with other colors, and with white and black, to vary the intensity.  The closer the more vivid intensity, and if you want to convey distance or depth, you will want to dilute that intensity.

Another feature of color is value.  This is the darkness or lightness of a color hue.  Generally, you will want to adjust the value before temperature to achieve the result you seek in a piece of art.

Analygous and Complimentary Colors

The painting color wheel is a very handy tool to help to identify analygous and complimentary colors.  Let me define each of these:  Analygous colors are those closest in the wheel.  As an example, yellow with compliments of yellow-green and blue-yellow or turquoise, or red with red-violet and blue -violet.  Van Gogh used  colors of reds, orange and yellows  to bring harmony to his work.

Use of analygous colors, also called harmonious colors, brings exactly that – harmony to your painting.  Sir Isaac Newton compared the colors on the color wheel to musical tones.  The colors to either side of one color are like tones of a chord in music, and bring harmony and cohesiveness to your artwork.

Use of complimentary colors can give some punch to the painting.

In close proximity to its compliment, purple for instance gives a lot of vibrancy to yellow, as does green to red.  Similarly, blue and orange impact one another.

You can also mix or blend in complimentary colors to lessen impact.  When you add purple to yellow, you gray the yellow.  The same with reds and greens, or blues and oranges.

So if you want to create a greenish-blue water color, that is not too intense, you may play with mixing in yellow and blue, then add some red to gray the color a bit.   You can add grey paint, but it may end up looking muddy!  Better to use the complimentary colors in my opinion.

analygous and complimentary colors from color wheelThere are so many variations that it is a good idea to own your own color table with the paint you are using.  This is not for pastels, since those are not mixed before application.  But it can help with pastel layering.

However, it is very useful for oils, acrylics and watercolors- especially for watercolors where the application of color is so hard to change later!

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What I suggest is to set up a paper with rectangles, six on the top and six on the left side.  Then squares to fill out the grid.  Put each of the primary and secondary colors on each of the six on top and left.  Then mix each.  And so forth.

This may seem like an exercise that will be a waste of time-but I can assure you, it will be valuable.  You will soon learn the effects of color combination possibilities and be better able to mix your palette for each work.

Browns are created by combining variations of all three primary colors.  You will find there are as many variations of browns as you can concieve of, from greenish to reddish to purplish to bluish, etc.  The amount of pigment added will impact your result,

Rarely will you want to use a pure black, which from Newton's prism is the absence of color.  For a black-like color you may want to mix your colors and then darken the value with a speck of black paint.  To reduce value once you have the hue you want, add some white.

With acrylic paints, I like titantium white,   If I want translucency, I use zinc white as an additive.

Experimentation is Great Fun

A key to our creativity and production is the freedom to experiment with color.  Knowing and understanding color theory helps to make our experimentation successful.  Isn't it amazing that it was not until 1706 that we were able to really understand color?

Up until then, it was all instinct and more limited to the few who could intuitively know how to work with color.  Now we have so many tools to help us.  Painting color wheels, especially your own customized paint color wheel, are really great tools.

Get some acrylic paints and play with them.  Have fun with color.

painting color wheels



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Published by Annie Collyer

Annie is a mom of four, a business owner and blogger. She and her husband live in New Hampshire, where they are both active volunteers in their community school district. She writes about designing our lives with proven design thinking principles. Join her in creating the life we each want.

  • Gary says:

    Hi, Annie,

    I love your website. Visiting here brought back wonderful memories from my time as an architectural grad student and an off-campus art supply shop call Art Parts where I practically lived.

    Thanks for the thorough discussion of the color wheel. Recently, I started designing the covers for my novels and needed a refresher on the color wheel. I’ve bookmarked your article to refer to whenever I’m in the throes of the design process.

    Thanks so much,

  • Paul says:

    I will need to share this post with my wife. I’ve never known about creating your own painting color wheel. I am not a painter but my wife is great at art and would love for her to get back to creating some paintings. I am not sure if she know’s about creating her own color wheel with the paints that she has…or maybe she does but I am just clueless.
    Either way, the instructions you provide on this blog certainly are certainly clear and easy to understand. Which I am sure will translate to your other instructions that may also be helpful for her to get proficient at painting.

  • Hi Anthony, thank you for visiting. I bet you will love the results if you give art a try! It is amazing to mix and apply and see what you can create! It expands the mind to see possibilities that we never knew existed!

  • minecraft says:

    Sweet blog! I found it while searching on Yahoo News.
    Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo News?

    I’ve been trying for a while but I never seem to get there!

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