Colour Wheel 101 for Painters

Opposite coloursgreyed out colourcomplements…

You may have heard these terms before in painting, and they can sound so technical!  But they’re simple, and incredibly useful to painters.   What they’re really referring to is the colour wheel – a lesson taught to artists and physicists by Sir Isaac Newton back in the 17th century, when he was investigating how light breaks up into prisms.

When we use the term “opposite colour”, or “complementary colour”, we’re referring to the colour directly opposite on the traditional colour wheel:  Red-Green, Purple-Yellow, Blue-Orange.

To “grey” a colour means to mix in a bit of its complement to claim it down a bit, or move it back into the distance.

By Kwamikagami (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Looking at colours around the circle this way allows artists to plan images based on analogous, complementary, or tertiary colour schemes.

Analagous Colour Scheme

Analagous colour schemes – especially in the cool end of the wheel – are incredibly restful for the eye.  These paintings invite us to step out of the chaos of day-to-day life and walk into peace.  They can also be used to evoke melancholy (consider the blue-purple-green schemes of Picasso’s blue period) or, moving to the warm end of the spectrum, passion!  Consider the red-yellow-orange interiors of Matisse.

An analogous scheme uses three colours beside each other on the main six-colour wheel (large font in the image above).  In this case, I’ve used Blue-Green-Purple to create an analogous harmony, adding warmer browns only sparingly to draw attention to the rock face.

Whether you’re going for restfulness or vibrant passion, these schemes work best if you stick to either the cool half, or the warm half of the wheel.


Complementary Colour Scheme

By contrast to the analogous scheme, choosing two colours from opposite sides of the colour wheel results in a dynamic, vibrant painting full of energy.  You don’t often see two colours used this way in fine art, but for sure this is a great way to sell a product!

In “Valentine’s Roses”, I’ve softened the red-green complement by adding some subtle blues and yellows to “split” the green, however the red-green composition is still the overall impression of the canvas.



Tertiary Colour Scheme

Taking colours in thirds around the wheel can result in even more dynamic and complex image, while allowing a greater sense of balance and harmony for a fine art piece vs. a pure complementary scheme.

In “Stained Glass” I focused on an Orange-Purple-Green scheme that really helped to make the orange leaves pop.  Notice how I used the particular orange sparingly, allowing the green or purple, as well as a darker, greyer version of the orange, to dominate.

Here’s a Red-Yellow-Blue scheme that tells me that Vermeer had a good idea of the colour wheel!


What colour schemes do you like to live with on your walls or in your home?  Which combinations evoke emotions for you?

Drop some feedback in the comments below, or shoot me an email showing your colour-scheme-in-progress!



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  3. Composition Tricks from the Old Masters


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