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The World of Colour Part III: Taking a Spin on the Colour Wheel

Now that the science-y part is out of the way, it’s time to get in touch with your artistic side. Today we will be covering the colour wheel and some forms of colour as they apply to art.

Hue, Saturation and Value
Colour can be described three ways. The first way is by hue. Hue is determined by the light’s wavelength. Red, green, purple, blue, orange etc. are all hues.


Saturation describes the pureness of a hue. A greyish red like in the example above would be described as desaturated. The bright red at the top of the stack would be considered fully saturated. Value describes the brightness of a hue. The closer the colour is to white, the higher the value. The value of a hue can be changed by adding with black or white to it. In art, adjusting the value of a colour creates tints of the colour.

Three ways to describe colour is by hue, saturation and value.

The Colour Wheel
Like the primary colours we were all fooled into believing, there is no one colour wheel. Printers use a wheel that revolves around cyan, magenta and yellow. Scientists and psychologists use a wheel that uses red, blue and green as its base. Still other historical wheels are not wheels at all, but triangles or “trees”.  Regardless of the colours they use or the form they take, colour wheels are tools that can be used to organize colours and show relationships between colours.


A theoretical colour wheel. When making a physical colour wheel with, say, paint, the results will be different because of the individual nature of the medium.

This is a typical theoretical colour wheel. It uses cyan, magenta and yellow as its base colours and shows the secondary and tertiary colour combinations that result from mixing. It is theoretical however because it is based on a simple calculation of the wavelength of two coloured light sources. If you tried to replicate this wheel with a real medium, such as paint, it would be impossible because each medium has it’s own variations and impurities. Therefore, if you’re looking to make your own colour wheel with paint, you will have to rely more on your artist instincts than precise calculations.


Colours can be classified as primary, secondary or tertiary depending on their position on the colour wheel. Depending on which primaries you start off with, your secondary and tertiary colours could be different that the ones shown here.

Colour Theory
The area of colour theory discusses the various relationships that exist between colours. These relationships generally group colours that will look good together. You can test colour theory out for yourself in your wardrobe, home decorating, or art and design projects.

Complementary colours lie on opposite sides of the colour wheel.


This is probably the most well-known colour relationship. Complementary colours have the greatest contrast with each other and therefore the most harmony. A colour’s complement lies opposite to it on the colour wheel. Therefore, on our wheel, the complement of cyan is red. The compliment of magenta is green and the complement of yellow is blue. If you change your wheel however, your complementary colours will change. If you subtractively mix a colour and its complement you will produce a grey-brown, less saturated version of the colours.

Mixing complementary colours together will decrease the colours saturation, eventually resulting in a greyish-brown hue.

Other Combinations
A split complementary palette takes one colour and the two colours on either side of its complement.

There are several other types of combinations that can be used to achieve harmony. Similar to complementary, a split complementary colour combination takes a starting colour, plus the two hues on either side of original colour’s complement. A triadic colour combination is connected by an equilateral triangle on the colour wheel. An analogous colour combination combines colours that share a similar hue. Similar hues reside side-by-side on the colour wheel.


Triadic combinations use three colours equally spaced along the colour wheel. Analogous colours share similar hues and are located beside each other.

Next: Cool & Confusing Colour
Prepare to have your mind blown in the fourth and final post in The World of Colour series. We dip into the land of optical illusions, where nothing is as it seems.