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How to use a color wheel? | Color Theory for beginners

In this part of ”Color Theory For Beginners” you’ll learn how to use a color wheel and why it is such a handy tool. I always keep a color wheel near me when painting, even though I know it by heart. Let’s find out how to use one! 

How to use a color wheel?

Like with many things there are several ways to use a color wheel. It can be used to check a colors temperature, you can use it to find harmonies or you can use it to map out a gamut (color range) of a specific palette. Also, it looks very colorful so for me it’s also a nice aesthetic to have in my studio :)

What is a color wheel?

A color wheel is a circular object that contains the primary, secondary and tertiary colors of the color spectrum. It’s a device to easily see where each color relatively lies to other colors. It sometimes includes extra information like tints, tones and shades of each hue and it often shows guides for color harmonies.

how to use a color wheel

You can find color wheels online or you can buy them as a physical copy. I always keep one near my when painting. 

Difference RYB color wheel and YURMBY color wheel

There are different kinds of color wheels: The RYB color wheel and the YURMBY (CMY) color wheel. 

RYB Color wheel

The Red, Yellow and Blue color wheel, also known as the standard color wheel, is what we get taught in elementory school. Logically this is what most non-artists use. 

The wheel uses Red, Yellow and Blue as its primaries and derives its secondary  (green, orange, purple) and tertiary hues from it.

YURMBY color wheel

YURMBY color wheel

The YURMBY color wheel was designed by photographer Toby Sanford. This color wheel was designed having lights in mind (additive color theory) rather than pigments (subtractive color theory). The YURMBY color wheel uses Cyan Yellow and Magenta as its primaries,  and red green and blue as its secondaries (I will go more in depth in a seperate article as to why!).

Throughout this article I will use the standard RYB colorwheel!

Primary colors on a color wheel

There are 3 primary colors. Primary colors are colors you cannot mix yourself, which means you have to buy these pigments. These include Blue, Yellow and Red. They often come in a set like Daniel Smith’s Essentials Watercolor set

primary colors

You can create every hue with the primaries but you cannot make every color with these primaries. As we’ve learnt in the article ‘’Hue value and saturation explained’’ a color exists out of 3 components: hue value and saturation. You can mix every hue, but you can’t control the value. For that we need an additional white and black.

Secondary colors on the color wheel

Secundary colors are colors made from mixing the primaries: Green, Purple and Orange.

SECONDARy colors

Tertiary colors on the color wheel

Tertiary colors are colors mixed from a primary and a secondary. This results in tertiary colors: secondaries that lean toward a primary.

Most used color wheels

Here’s a selection of the most popular color wheels:

color wheels


Shades represent the dark values of a color. The darkest shade is black. 


Tints represent the light values of a color. The lightest tint it white. However, in order to create tints you need to slightly desaturate the color as well when working digitally, as explained in this article.


When it comes to paints simply adding white will do the trick. Adding white paint automatically slightly desaturates a color.


Tones are colors that are desaturated. If a color is fully desaturated it will be gray. You can desaturate a color by adding its complementary color or by adding gray.

How to use a color wheel

Let’s explore 3 ways on how to use a color wheel.

Check a color's temperature

This is the main reason why I keep a color wheel near me at all times. There are cool colors and warm colors. But did you know that even a blue color can be warm? And a red can be cool? We need to know a color’s temperature in order to work with it. If we want to know if a color is either cool or warm, we need to place it on the color wheel. Then, we compare the color to other colors in our palette and determine if it’s cool or warm.


Knowing a color’s temperature helps us avoid muddiness when mixing colors.

warm vs cool colors

Find color harmonies

Color wheels that you buy always come with color harmony guides. Each color wheel has a paper wheel that you can rotate. It shows which hues go together. If you don’t have a physical color wheel you can use websites like Adobe Color to create your own palettes and filter on color harmonies.

Complementary Color Harmony

Complementary color harmonies are colors opposite on the color wheel.

complementary color harmony

Split Complementary Color Harmony

Split complementary color harmonies are two colors opposite on the color wheel, but instead of using its opposite, it used the two colors adjacent to it.

split complementary color harmony

Triadic Color Harmony

Triadic color harmonies use 3 colors which are all evenly spaced on the color wheel.

triadic color harmony

Tetradic Color Harmony

Tetradic color harmonies use 4 colors in either a square or rectangular way. It uses 2 colors plus their complementaries.

tetradic color harmony

Analogous Color Harmony

Analogous color harmonies are colors right next to each other on the color wheel.

analogous color harmony

Monochromatic Color Harmony

Monochronatic color harmonies use 1 hue plus its value range (tints and shades). You can play with saturation as well, as long as you stick to 1 hue.

monochromatic color harmony

Map out gamut

Did you know that you don’t have to start with the usual primaries? A different way to use a color wheel is to map out the color range of your palette. Pick 3 or 4 primaries (these can be any colors that you want), place them on your color wheel and connect them. Everything inside this triangle (or rectangle) are the colors you can mix with your palette!

gamut mapping

Sometimes color theory gets a little confusing (it’s simple but there’s a lot of rules!) so I keep a color wheel near me at all times. I hope you can now too use one with ease!


See you next week,


♡ Laura

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