The Colour Wheel

The Colour Wheel is a tool for exploring colour relationships and helping to build more informed and effective palettes. This post is intended to be a quick primer in the concepts involved.

The Colour Wheel is made up of 12 segments.

the colour wheel

During his work on optics, Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727) is believed to be the first person to create a colour wheel — mapping the colours of the visible spectrum and joining the ends.

Primary Colours

colour wheel graphic showing the primary colours

The Primary Colours are Red, Blue, and Yellow. These are the only colours on the wheel that are not formed by mixing others together.

Secondary Colours

colour wheel graphic showing secondary colours

Secondary Colours are positioned halfway between the primaries, and are made up of equal amounts of the closest hues.

Tertiary Colours

colour wheel graphic showing tertiary colours

Tertiary Colours make up the remainder of the wheel. These are formed by mixing primary and secondary colours equally.


colour wheel graphic showing the influence of a single colour

The extent of the influence of the blue primary colour

All around the wheel, each colour makes up a part of its neighbour. We can also see that each primary colour has an influence in every hue before the next primary appears.

Tints and Shades

colour wheel graphic expanded to show tints and shades

Colour Wheel adapted to include lighter tints and darker shades of the 12 colours

We can also break the wheel down further to include colour value. Value refers to a colour with a shade (added black) or a tint (added white). As you can see, this greatly multiplies the number of colours that we can build a palette from.

Finding related colours

Monochromatic Colours

colour wheel graphic showing monochromatic colours

Using various values of the same base colour will result in a Monochromatic palette. Monochromatic palettes can achieve a beautiful restrained feel.

Analogous Colours

colour wheel graphic showing analogous colours

Analogous palettes are made by using the two neighbouring hues to any single colour. Because they are closely related, the resulting combination is a harmonious blend. Try giving one colour prominence over the other.

Complementary Colours

colour wheel graphic showing complementary colours

Complementary colours are those facing each other on the wheel. Together, these make a vibrant, striking combination. While they might not always be visually pleasing, Complements amplify the characteristics of each other. An effective technique is to give one colour prominence, and use the other sparingly to call attention.

Split Complementary Colours

colour wheel graphic showing split complementary colours

A Split Complementary palette is made using the two neighbouring hues to your chosen colour’s complement. Split complements have the characteristics of a Complementary palette but with a more subtle effect.

Triadic Colours

colour wheel graphic showing triadic colours

Triadic colours are spaced apart equally on the colour wheel. These palettes give strong contrast and create tension.

Mutual Complements

colour wheel graphic showing mutual complementary colours

A Mutual Complementary palette is formed using a triadic palette, and then adding the complement of one of the three initial hues.

Double Complements

colour wheel graphic showing double complementary colours

Finally, Double Complements are any two neighbouring colours and their respective complements.

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