Understanding Colour

An understanding of basic colour theory underpins the work of any visual artist. The colour model favoured by artists and makers (of things that reflect light) is known as the subtractive colour wheel. This is the familiar red, yellow, blue one you may remember from school. If you use a computer you’ll no doubt be aware that other models exist for different outputs, such as red, green, blue, (additive colour wheel for projected light), or cyan, magenta, yellow, black, (for process printing).

The Subtractive Colour Wheel.


















This model is based on three primary colours, red, yellow and blue from which all other colours can be mixed. If you are a budding artist you might like to copy the diagram and mix the colours to fill it in – a good exercise in colour mixing and in using a limited palette.



Two primaries mixed will give a secondary colour.


A secondary colour mixed with a primary will produce a tertiary colour.



The choice of hue for the primaries will dictate the success of colours mixed from secondary and tertiary colours. Primary colours should be the purest form of the colour - with no hint of any other hue in them. It’s important to consider that we all see colour differently and that we are limited by the pigments available to us. This appears straightforward but completing the colour wheel (diagram shown) is not as simple as mixing, for example, 50% red with 50% yellow to create orange as one might expect. Yellow has a lighter VALUE (lightness/darkness) than red so a small amount of the darker value red will require a much larger quantity of yellow to create a perfect orange.

The colour wheel demonstrates WARM and COOL colours. Obviously, red and yellow are warm, fiery colours and blue is a cold, icy hue but as the levels of mixing progress it becomes more complicated. For instance, red-violet is a warm violet and blue-violet is a cool violet, but blue-violet is also a warm blue! Another key feature of the colour wheel is that it shows us COMPLEMENTARY colours. These are colours which are directly opposite on the colour wheel and which, when placed together produce a strong violent contrast, colours that are closer on the colour wheel have less contrast. A good exercise is to play with squares of colour combinations to observe the results.






The juxtaposed complementary colours produce a strong contrast while the blue/violet (Non-complementary) example shows very little.


Understanding the colour wheel is critical in developing good colour mixing skills, informed use of colour and contrast to create aerial perspective, (cooler colours recede, warmer colours advance), limiting your palette for more cohesive and natural results and creating effective colour combinations.


Elizabeth Tomkins

Colour Wheel comp.jpg
Screenshot 2018-09-16 12.16.21.png

Colour Basics