Color Wheel and Color Relationships

Whether you want to learn to mix paint or put together harmonious color schemes, you must understand color relationships. An excellent way to see color relationships is to look at the color wheel.

The placement of the colors around the wheel is not random. The spectral order (like the rainbow) of colors bend into a complete circle. Each color's placement can help you to identify harmonious color combinations.

What is a Color Wheel Used For?

A color wheel is a tool for organizing colors and understanding color relationships. Think of it as your cheat sheet for creating color harmony. The arrangement of the colors on the wheel gives you a variety of ways to combine hues to create harmonious color combinations. By using the color wheel in this way you can generally select the colors or color families you will use together. When you are ready to select the actual colors, you will use a fan guide, samples, swatches, or online tools that shows you hundreds or maybe even thousands of colors in the material or medium you will be using for your project.

The color wheel is also used by artist and designers as a guide for mixing paints and pigments.

Get to Know the Color Wheel

The most common color wheel has twelve sections. A color wheel could have as few as six hues or as many as 24, 48, 96 or more. I find that twelve is the perfect number because the color wheel is not a color selection tool. It is merely a tool for reminding you about color relationships and how to create color harmony.

The quickest way to become familiar with the color wheel is to look at each of its parts.


Twelve colors make up the outermost ring of the color wheel. These colors are at their highest chroma and most pure state.

Changing Color Value with Tints, Tones, and Shades

As you'll remember from the last lesson, value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. The lighter the color, the higher the value; the darker the color, the lower its value.

The lighter value of a color created when a hue is blended with white is called a tint. The hue may be mixed with just a touch of white or with so much white that the hue is very faint but all are tints of the hue. On the color wheel only one tint is shown for each hue. It is the color next to the hue and the tint is made to look like it is midway between the hue and white. 

A tone of a color is created when a hue is blended with gray; adding gray quiets or tones down a color. A hue mixed with any amount of gray is considered a tone. On the color wheel only one tone, which is made to look like it is midway between the hue and middle gray is included for each color. 

A shade is a darker value of a color, made by adding black. Just as with the tints and tones, a hue may be mixed with just a touch of black or with so much black that you are hardly able to detect the hue; all are considered a shade of the hue. On the color wheel only one shade is shown for each hue. The inner most circle includes a shade of each hue, which is made to look like it is midway between the hue and black.

Each of the twelve hues on the color wheel plus all of the many tints, tones, and shades  make up the colors on the color wheel. 

Color Families

Color Family: Each segment on the color wheel represents the color family of that particular hue. The segment shown on the color wheel above is the yellow-green color family. Remember that only the hue and three variations of it are included for each family, however, they represent all of the many, many variations of each hue.

There are twelve families show on the color wheel, one for each hue. Do you see why I say that the color wheel is not a color selection tool? The wheel can point you to the right color family or combination of colors. When you know what color you are after, you can go to actual samples of the colors available to make you selections.

Next, a quick review of the basics will prepare you for creating color harmonies. The twelve hues of the color wheel are primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors.

Color Temperature

The terms "warm" and "cool" are often used to describe a color. In general blue, green and purple are cool colors while yellow, orange, and red hues are considered warm.

Many say that the temperature of any color comes from physiological and psychological feelings rather than the measurable temperature. For example, a warm orange feels cozy like a crackling fire or cool blue feels as calming as a sea breeze. There is actually more to it but for now this gives you the idea.

You may have heard that all colors are either warm or cool and even seen them equally divided on the color wheel based on their temperature. I used to explain color temperature that way, too. It was an easy way to explain the concept. The precise delineation gave my students a "right" answer. When you are first learning anything, believing that you know the correct answer is reassuring.

Color Temperature Model Updated

We all like certainty, but to master color, you much get comfortable with uncertainty and right here is an excellent place to begin. Mastering color and life for that matter is an exercise in trusting yourself.

Why do you need to trust yourself? Because when working with color, there are often no absolutes - principles which are universally valid or which you can see without relation to other things. Color temperature is an excellent example of this idea. Whether a color is warm or cool can depend on the colors that surround it, the intent of the artist or designer, and people's subjective feelings about a hue.

Most people agree that there are warm and cool colors. I'm stepping outside of how colors have conventionally been divided up based on what I have observed over several decades of working with colors. 

The Old Color Temperature Model

Color Wheel Temperature the old model of dividing the colors

Like most people, I categorize red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, and yellow as warm colors; blue-green, blue and blue-violet are cool colors. But here is where I don't agree with most. I have found that even in the most general terms that violet, red-violet, green, and yellow-green are not warm or cool colors. These color can fit into either category.

Chart showing Color Temperature with Warm Colors, Cool Colors, and Not Warm or Cool Colors

Just because these colors are not warm or cool doesn't mean that they are neutral. Neutral is already an overused word so please don't call these colors neutrals. Think of them as universal colors that can work in a warm or cool color palette equally well.

If A Color Is Warm Or Cool is Relative

While colors can generally be considered warm or cool, it is more critical for you to be able to see that a color's temperature is relative to other colors.

Relative Color Temperature Diagram

Red and yellow are both warm colors. If you were describing red swatches just in terms of temperature, you would label them as warm. All of the swatches are red, but some are warmer as they move closer to orange (yellow) and cooler as they move closer to violet (blue).

If you have chosen a red paint or sample of fabric, but it isn't quite right, you would want to find a different red. You could describe the red you desire as either warmer or cooler than the original color. You are only considering the color red, but it helps to decide if you would like the red to be cooler or warmer. Understanding relative temperature can help you to find just the color you have in mind more quickly.

The same is true for yellow. All of the yellow squares are considered warm, but when comparing one yellow to another, the yellows that are moving towards orange (red) are warmer. The yellows moving towards green (blue) are cooler.

Blue is different because it can only move warmer. You can think of the two directions around the wheel as blue warming towards yellow or blue warming towards red. Blue-green is warmer than blue and so is blue-violet.

A Tip for Using the Hand-held Color Wheel

If you look at the color wheel in the same orientation every time, it becomes easier to remember the positions of each color and how they relate to one another. For this reason, I suggest that you get into the habit of holding the color wheel with yellow always at the top.  Yellow is the lightest color on the wheel; violet is the darkest. Your mind is comfortable with light being at the top and dark beneath. It is like the earth and sun lit sky.  Even at night the source of light is most often coming from above.

The goal is use the color as a reference tool, first by referring to it directly but eventually to see the relationships so clearly that they are stored in your memory as an instant reference for you to access any time you are working with color.

You will find working with color much easier and more enjoyable if you are able to visualize the positions of each color around the wheel and basically know how the colors relate to one another even when you don't have a color wheel right in front of you.

Continue the Color Theory Tutorial

Go Back to Lesson 1: Start With Individual Colors

You are currently viewing Lesson 2: Color Relationships & the Color Wheel

Go forward to Lesson 3: Creating Color Harmony

Jump to Appendix 1: Color Terminology Glossary

Read Time: 8 min
  • Lynda Simon says:

    This may be the first time I can say I actually understand how the color wheel is suppose to be used. Thank you!

    • Kate Smith says:

      Lynda, I’m so happy that my explanation could help you to understand the color wheel.

  • >