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How to Use the Color Wheel? The Fundamentals of Color Theory 🎨

My followers on Instagram and TikTok often ask about my process for selecting color palettes in art. Since it's a broad topic, in this post, I would like to begin by discussing the fundamentals of color theory.

This way, you will be able to gain a deeper understanding of how colors work together and how to create harmonious and visually appealing compositions in your artworks. By grasping the basics of color theory, you'll have a solid foundation to build upon and explore more advanced color schemes and techniques...

I. What is color theory?

The theory of color consists of a series of principles that apply to various fields related to color, including painting, photography, animation, and design. It helps us understand how colors are created and how they complement each other.

To understand the relationships between colors, we use the color wheel. It's both a theoretical and practical tool. The order of colors on the color wheel is logical, immovable, and universal. From their positioning, we can create concepts with balance and harmony.

Basic, artistic color wheel
Artistic color wheel

In the following points, I will present the essential information that we can find on the color wheel.

IMPORTANT: The rules I mention in this post apply to the Artistic Color Wheel, which is used for pigment colors like paints. They won't work in the computer RGB additive model, which is based on light.

II. The artistic color wheel and how to read it

A) PRIMARY AND SECONDARY COLORS: On this color scheme, you can observe two groups of colors present on the color wheel: primary colors (red, blue, yellow) and secondary colors (green, purple, orange). This fundamental knowledge pertains to color mixing: by combining primary colors, you can achieve secondary colors. For instance, yellow and blue combine to create green, red and yellow produce orange, and blue and red result in violet.

Color wheels with primary and secondary colors

Mixing colors in this way teaches resourcefulness and intuition in the theory of color. In painting classes, we were usually encouraged to use only a basic palette of about 9 colors, which helped us practice mixing colors instead of using them straight from the tubes.

wartercolor paints

B) MONOCHROMATIC COLORS: On this color scheme, you can observe that the colors closer to the center of the circle become lighter (but yellow, for example, is still yellow). In a monochromatic palette, a range of darker and lighter variations of the same color are used. This means you can create a complete picture using just one color, but with darker and lighter values. It's similar to using a grayscale pencil—there's no color, but it's still readable. Practicing seeing values using only one color is a valuable exercise for artists.

In my artworks I rarely use monochromatic schemes but like to use colors that are more pale and pastel, so the ones that are closer to the center of the color wheel.

sketchbook page with a portrait and a figure drawing made with colored pencils by Gabriela Niko - doodle traffic
The colors in my artworks are usually from the central area of the colors wheel where the hues are lighter


Another important aspect you'll find on the color wheel is the division between cool and warm tones. This division plays a crucial role when designing an illustration or a character to convey a particular mood or emotion. As you can see, warm and cool colors split the color wheel.

Warm and cool colors on color wheel

Simply put, warm colors evoke warm things like the sun or fire (reds, yellows, oranges 🍎🌞), while cool colors evoke cool things like a mountain stream or cool grass (blues, greens, purples 🏔️❄️). You can utilize warm and cool colors independently to create a distinctly warm or cool appearance in your artwork, as showcased in these photos:

However, my personal preference lies in combining cool and warm colors together. Due to their placement on opposite sides of the color wheel, cool and warm tones complement each other and intensify when positioned side by side. This results in a powerful effect known as simultaneous contrast. You can witness this striking interplay in the photo below:

Photo of sunset with cool blue tones and warm sun with pink reflections on the ocean.
Cool and warm tones combined together create a strong simultaneous contrast and make the picture more vivid.

D) COMPLEMENTARY COLORS are hues opposite each other on the color wheel. In their most basic form, they consist of one primary color and the secondary color created by mixing the other two primaries. For example, the complementary color to yellow is purple, which is a mix of blue and red.

With this knowledge, you can remember the first set of complementary colors:

  • Yellow and purple

  • Blue and orange

  • Red and green

If you add the tertiary colors (those made up of one primary and one secondary color) and work your way around the color wheel, you'll find that these colors are also complementary:

  • Yellow-orange and blue-purple

  • Orange-red and blue-green (aqua)

  • Red-purple (pink) and green-yellow

The color wheel can be divided into infinite numbers of times to include all gradients between these basic hues. What's most important to understand is that no matter the shade or tone of the color, its complementary color is always the opposite.

Remember: complementary colors make each other pop ✨

A pair of complementary colors consists of one cool color and one warm color. As said before – it creates a simultaneous contrast, the highest contrast available on the color wheel.

Simultaneous contrast occurs due to a natural illusion when you place two complementary colors next to each other. Both colors will appear brighter and grab the viewer's attention.

portrait of a woman painted with colored pencils by Gabriela Niko, doodle traffic
In this portrait you can see an example of the simultaneous contrast made with cool and warm tones

E) ANALOGOUS COLORS. Colors are called analogous when they are very similar to each other, so when they are next to each other on the color wheel. For example, red, red-orange, and orange are analogous colors.

Analogous color schemes create visually pleasing and calming displays. For instance, the color blue can pair nicely with both teal and green. They usually match well and create serene and comfortable designs. Analogous color schemes are often found in nature and create a harmonious effect.

F) TRIADIC COLORS. A triadic color scheme consists of three colors evenly spaced on the color wheel. The two most basic triadic palettes are the primary colors red, blue, and yellow, and the secondary hues orange, purple, and green.

Spot the main character. To use a triadic harmony successfully, the colors should be carefully balanced. Let one color dominate and use the other two for accents. By combining colors using the triadic principle, we create a lively and cheerful space, which is most suitable for playful or colorful designs.


Honestly speaking, I rarely use any other color palettes than those described above. So far, I have only experimented with split-complementary or square schemes, but I don't feel the need to use them in my daily work. I believe it's worth starting with simple concepts (like monochrome palettes, warm and cool tones, or complementary colors) and then exploring unusual combinations if desired. Basic knowledge of color theory is sufficient to discover what you like and what you want to communicate in your art. I don't think creating polygons on the color wheel is necessary to develop color sensitivity, but I may be wrong. Perhaps my approach is more intuitive and less technical? Try and see what suits you most.

III. Some more tips

MIXING BROWN COLORS: Mix a primary color with its complementary color. Add orange to blue, purple to yellow, or green to red. Each combination produces a different shade of brown, so it's helpful to create a color chart for quick reference.

MIXING GRAYS: Mix some orange (or yellow and red) with blue, then add some white. Personally, I prefer using more blue than orange in my grays, but you can experiment with the amount of white you use.

COLORS BECOMING MUDDY: Mixing too many colors together can result in a dull or "muddy" color. Generally, it's safe to mix up to three pigments, but when you mix four or more, it introduces too many different color factors that can make the mix look muddy. If your gray or brown isn't turning out the way you want it to, it's better to start again rather than adding more color in the hope of fixing it.

DON'T BE AFRAID TO STEAL: I have plenty of photos, designs, and illustrations saved simply because I like their color palettes. They serve as a great source of inspiration and can help you learn, save time, and stay motivated. Don't be afraid to take pieces from other artists' works and create a collage of what you love. Just make sure you don't copy everything from a single artist!

You might also like these links:


If you would like to learn more, I invite you to subscribe to my Patreon, where you can gain access to exclusive content. Additionally, you can check out my Domestika courses on Portrait Sketchbooking and Drawing Portraits with Colored Pencils. Don't forget to follow me on Instagram and TikTok for regular updates!


That's all for now, I hope these tips will be helpful for you!

Happy doodling!



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