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[Colour Theory] Using the Colour Wheel

category: Design | course: Colour Theory | difficulty:

I present to you: the most overused graphic for teaching colour theory!

While it is very important in understanding the basic concepts, almost none of the designs you see in real-life adhere to the colour wheel rules perfectly. The colour wheel gives you a very useful graphical representation for the different rules and guidelines in colour theory,  but it only represents a very small set of pure colours, which are rarely – if ever – used in a design.


Primary, Secondary and Tertiary colours

There are three layers or levels that can be distinguished in the colour wheel.

  • Primary: Red, yellow, blue.
  • Secondary: Orange, green, purple. Created by combining primary colours.
  • Tertiary: Intermediate colours, created by combining primary with secondary colours.

While this is nice to know, it doesn’t mean that one colour is more important than the other. All spokes of the colour wheel are their own equally important colour category which you can choose as the base of your colour scheme.

Warm & Cool Colours

The colour wheel can be divided into two equal halves, each containing 6 consecutive colours. These halves then represent the warm and cool colours. This rough distinction is made to identify which colours bring energy, warmth and power to a design, and which colours make it look calm, relaxed and professional.

  • Warm: The colours from red to light green. Red and yellow are usually seen as bringing the most energy. Warm colours pop at you, giving the appearance of being closer. They feel hot and communicate a feeling of warmth.
  • Cool: The rest of the colours, from dark green to purple-pink. Blue is usually seen as the most calm one. Cool colours recede, giving the appearance of being farther away. They remind us of nature and water, and communicate a feeling of calmness.

I must say, however, that context is very important here, and other properties play a role in communicating certain feelings as well. Next chapters will be about that.

There is some debate as to whether green and purple/pink belong to warm or cool colours. The distinction I used above is the one I was taught, but I often use a pink or light-purple colour as a bright, warm colour. Bottom-line: don’t follow these rules blindly, see for yourself.

Neutral Colours


Besides these colours with temperature, there’s a group that is neither warm nor cool. They can be added to any colour combination, and their meaning or importance will change a lot depending on the colours around it. They often serve as backdrop, or body text colour, and shouldn’t draw attention to themselves. They are the neutrals, which is further split into two categories:

  • Greyscale: Black, white and all the greys between it are neutral colours. Depending on how bright your colour is, you can add one or multiple of these to it. A dark blue can have white and light greys on it, while a light blue is better off with black or dark greys.
    • Often times, the colours tan and ivory are also included here. They are a blend of grey with beige/brown, and look soft and dull. However, that makes them ideal for a subtle background colour.
  • Warm neutrals: These include all sorts of brown (even including some orange tints) and beige. They are called warm neutrals because they give off a warm, safe, cosy, natural feeling. Brown is basically a mix of all the colours, so it fits with everything while still having its own unique identity.
    • I personally use warm neutrals a lot, because they add a sense of warmth and fullness to a design, while at the same time not interfering with the main colour scheme.

How to Use the Colour Wheel

Later on, when we start talking about harmonies and colour context you’ll see the true importance of this wheel.

However, in explaining some of the core definitions for colours, it isn’t all that useful. For that, we will use colour triangles in the next chapter.

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