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Colour Wheel


Print the Colour Wheel to get your colour mixes right, first time

Use the Practice Wheel to preview the colours for your new painting



 We've all experienced this when we were starting out...

You're well along with a new painting when you realize that Something's Wrong! The problem will be due to one or both of two things: An unbalanced composition or a lack of colour harmony. In another article, I showed you how using what I call "The Star" can help you avoid design mistakes from the outset. Now, I'd like to show you the very best tool you will ever find for getting your colour composition right, every time.
I don't know who invented The Colour Wheel but s/he sure was a friend to every artist who has followed. Models of The Wheel are included with this article. You can print and copy them as many times as you wish. Use them to experiment while you become familiar with the principles behind the theory.

You already know there are only three Primary Hues: Red, Yellow, Blue. Where they merge, they create the Secondary colours: Orange, Green, Purple. These are the major colours we see when light is projected through a prism, separating into its different wavelengths. A strip of these colours can be joined to make a circle: The Colour Wheel. Looking at a rainbow, or at a scene in nature, you'll notice that many more colours than these are discernible.

And so, the basic principle of The Colour Wheel has been expanded to include the Tertiary colours: Red Purple, Blue Purple, Blue Green, Yellow Green. Using this advanced model, you can make far more accurate colour matches.

Take a ruler and pencil a line joining any colour with the one opposite it on the Wheel. Each is the Complement of the other. For instance, the complement of Red is not Green, but Blue Green. The colours Adjacent, or next to, Red are Orange and Red Purple. If you pencil a wedge shape - or "slice of the pie" - to include the Adjacent and the Dominant hues at the wide end, with the Complement at the pointy end, you'll have the basis for a sound colour composition.

If you were to analyse any successful  painting you see - in a museum or gallery or art journal - you would find the artist has used colours that fit into this wedge shape on the Wheel. But wait, there's more! No, not a set of steak knives...

Taking that pencil again, draw an equal-sided triangle starting from the Dominant hue. The bottom corners of the triangle will be over the two Discord hues. Used sparingly, these colours will give your painting a pleasing contrast that enlivens the work. The final, and very important, element of your colour composition is made up of the Neutral hues. They are made by mixing a colour with varying amounts of its Complement.

Experiment by drawing a line between two colours, adding just a little more of the Complement to each as you work towards the centre of the Wheel. You'll see how lively are the greys you can mix this way. Because they are made from the colours you're using in your painting, they'll give the work a satisfying cohesiveness, while letting the eye rest from the dominant hues. A grey made by mixing White with Black is dead, artificial, and does nothing for your artwork.

So here's your "recipe" for a colour-balanced painting:

  • Dominant hue: comprises the bulk of the composition.
  • Adjacent hues: equal amounts of both, but use less of each than the Dominant.
  • Complement: very small amount (diminished in Chroma - more on that later.)
  • Discord hues: equal, small amounts of each.
  • Neutral hues: mixed from colours used in the painting.

Let's take a famous painting and see how this system works in practice. Because the French Impressionists were the masters of colour, I've chosen as our example a painting by Claude Monet: Poppies: near Argenteuil. (See a reproduction of it above)

The painting shows a sunny day in the countryside where two women and their children wander through an open field. A summery sky filled with fluffy white clouds is bordered by a row of dark trees that almost hide a distant farmhouse. The grassy field, scattered with wild poppies, fills the entire foreground. What do we see in terms of this painting's colour scheme?

  • Dominant hue: Yellow-Green. As the Impressionists were well aware, a bright landscape looks mainly yellow. So, the Yellow-Green grass nearly fills the canvas.
  • Adjacent hues: Yellow tips the grasses and makes the straw hats of the small figures; a soft Yellow tints the walls of the farmhouse. Green makes a bold line of trees at the horizon and the shadows in the field.
  • Complement: Purple. The small figure of the woman in the foreground wears a dress of this shade.
  • Discord hues :  Red poppies are clumped in the immediate foreground, softening in intensity of colour as they recede up the grassy slope. Blue sky shows between the clouds and is echoed in the nearer woman's parasol.
  • Neutral hues : A number of extremely subtle blends of the colours used throughout the painting.

To check how this works, study both models of The Colour Wheel.

Earlier, I mentioned Chroma. This is the intensity of a colour, which can be altered - lowered - by adding small amounts of the colour's Complement. Value refers to the darkness or lightness of a colour. Some hues can never be as deep in Value as others. Looking at the Wheel, you'll see that for instance, Yellow can never be as deep in Value as is Purple, even at its greatest intensity, or Chroma. So, how do you use this knowledge to match a particular colour?

Let's say you need to match a strong, greyish-blue of storm clouds in a landscape. Squeeze from the tube a bit of the blue closest to what you see in the clouds, probably Cobalt Blue. You'll modify this with a bit of its complement, which you know is orange. (If you must, you can use Cadmium Orange, but why not mix it yourself from Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red?)

It won't look quite right yet. When comparing your mixture with those clouds, try to see whether the difference lies in chroma or value. If the chroma is too intense, add a little more orange. If the value is too dark, add some white. When you've gone overboard with the white, don't be tempted to add black to darken the mixture. Add a bit more Cobalt Blue instead. Keep adjusting until your match is right. At first, you'll need a lot of stick-at-it-ness but believe me, it'll soon seem easy as pie when the principles have become second nature to you.

When you make it a habit to plan your work by choosing that "slice of pie" from The Colour Wheel before you start painting, you'll never have another failure caused by a poor colour scheme.© Dorothy Gauvin

You're welcome to download or copy the Colour Wheels free of charge.

This article may be reprinted free of charge providing that the whole article and the author's resource box 'About the Author' - below - are included in their entirety without editing.
About the Author
Dorothy Gauvin shares art knowledge from her careers as painter and gallery director in her 'ArtLife' blog. Her paintings and 'Life-Story' portraits in oils are displayed on