The Colour Wheel

The Colour Wheel is a tool for helping us explore how colours relate to each other, and – in turn – build more informed palettes. This post is intended to be quick primer in the concepts involved.

Blog article by James Newcombe. Originally posted 05 October 2012.

The Colour Wheel is made up of 12 hues.

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 diagram showing the primary colours

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

Secondary Colours

colour wheel diagram 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 diagram showing tertiary colours

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


colour wheel diagram demonstrating 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

a colour wheel diagram 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

the colour wheel

Using various values of the same base colour will result in a Monochromatic palette. Producing a document with a palette like this would potentially make for a cheaper print run (if using the litho process). It could also result in a beautiful restrained feel, if you use this method correctly.

Analogous Colours

colour wheel diagram showing examples of analogous colours

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

Complementary Colours

colour wheel diagram showing examples of complementary colours

Complementary colours are those facing each other on the wheel. These provide a strong contrast and result in a vibrant, striking palette. Complementary colours can be visually pleasing as they amplify the characteristics of each other. An effective technique is to let one of the two colours dominate by way of having a larger area, and using the other as an accent.

Split Complementary Colours

colour wheel diagram showing examples of split complementary colours

A Split Complementary palette is made using the two neighbouring colours of your chosen hue’s complement. Split complements have the benefits of a Complementary palette but with a slightly subtler effect.

Triadic Colours

colour wheel diagram showing examples of triadic colours

Triadic colours are spaced equally apart on the colour wheel — like the primary and secondary colours at the beginning of the post. Triadic palettes give strong contrast and create tension.

Mutual Complements

colour wheel diagram showing examples of mutually complementary colours

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

Double Complements

colour wheel diagrem showing examples of double complementary colours

Double Complements are any two neighbouring colours and their respective complementary hues.