Color Theory 101: The Color Wheel

Posted by: Rebecca Atwood

Color fascinates me.

The right combination pulls at your heart -- it’s magic. Recently, I walked off the subway and the sun illuminated the clock tower on Atlantic Avenue and the stone building became a glowing pink. The intensity of that hue against the sky is breathtaking.  Color defines the mood and draws you in. 

While it can seem mysterious, and there is a certain element of magic, there are underlying color structures. 

Master these basics and you’ll use color with more ease, as you’ll understand their interactions. There will of course be those subjective nuances that make a combination sing, but we’ll explore that more after we cover the basics.  I’m going to take you back to grade school for our first post in color theory, and we’re going to review the color wheel.  It is a simple visual representation of how colors interact with one another.

Color WheelPrimary

Primary colors are your color building blocks – they are the colors from which you can make all others. Most commonly we consider them to be red, blue, and yellow – but think about your printer, too, then you have magenta, cyan, and yellow. For the sake of simplicity we will talk about all colors here based off of red, blue, and yellow primaries.  These colors are spaced evenly around the color wheel.

 primary colors: yellow, blue and red



Secondary colors are made when you mix two primary colors together: orange, green, and purple.

 secondary colors: orange, green and purple


Tertiary colors are the next layer of color and fit in between the Primary and Secondary colors on the wheel. When you mix red and orange for example you’ll have red-orange. The other colors in this category include: orange-yellow, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, and purple-red.

tertiary color swatches 

This same concept can continue on, and for me this is where it starts to get interesting as the colors become more specific. A primary red, yellow, and blue are bold and by nature of being building block colors can at times feel somewhat generic on their own.

When you start to build color palettes and refine these colors to just the right hue it becomes truly personal. In our next post I’ll cover key color terms you need to know to help you understand these relationships further. 

Photography by Lydia Hudgens.

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