Understanding the Color Wheel - Scout Sixteen

Color Theory

Understanding the Color Wheel - Scout Sixteen

The color wheel is your guide to visual harmony. You’ve likely seen it a hundred times but have you ever truly understood it? It’s one of the most invaluable tools in teaching you how to recognize and approach color theory – how hues relate to one another, why some color combinations are more pleasing than others, etc. It’s important to understand how color works because it has the ability to influence our moods and emotions; this is information that advertisers and designers have been employing for many years. Here’s a crash course on understanding the color wheel:

Color Families

Color is divided into 3 common families: primary, secondary, and tertiary (or intermediate) colors.

Primary Colors – Red, Yellow, and Blue

In traditional color theory, the primary colors are those that cannot be formed by any other color combination. All other colors are directly derived from these 3 colors.

Secondary Colors – Green, Orange, and Purple

These are the colors made by mixing the primary colors.

Tertiary Colors – Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange, Red-Purple, Blue-Purple, Blue-Green, and Yellow-Green

These are the colors made by mixing a primary color and a secondary color. Each of these hues will have two names (denoted by a hyphen) showing which colors were used to create it.

Color Harmony

Everyone will react to color differently, but we are all hard-wired to see color the same way. Harmony is described as the pleasing arrangement of parts – whether that’s a recipe, painting, or even a braided bracelet. Relating to color, harmony is a balance in the visual experience. As you saturate and de-saturate an experience, the emotional response triggered will register with each user differently. I am personally a fan of monochromatic color schemes (those relating to the same hue) while another might lean towards pairing many colors together.

Pairing too many colors can be over-stimulating while a lack of color complexity can be under-stimulating, a proper balance will lead to color harmony. In theory, there are two main harmonious combinations:

Analogous Color Scheme

Analogous color schemes are those which fall side-by-side in the color wheel, such as yellow-orange, orange, and orange-red. Typically, one of these three colors will dominate over the remaining two.

Complimentary Color Scheme

A complimentary color scheme is created when two colors that lie opposite one another in the color wheel are paired together, such as yellow and blue.

Emotive Color Scheme

An emotive color scheme is one which is based on the combination of colors eliciting a specific emotional response, such as the heart-racing ability of red and yellow to make one eat faster (something both Burger King and McDonald’s have successfully employed) or how blue and purple can create a calming yet bold environment. Many emotive color schemes are purely subjective as the experience may differ from person to person.

Color Differentiation


This is simply another name for one of the twelve colors on the color wheel: three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors.


A color shade is the color made by adding any degree of black. You can add a little black, a lot of black, or the faintest amount to create a shade of any hue in the color wheel (including color mixtures). Shades work very well to bring a certain masculinity to a look, room, or palette.


While sometimes called a pastel, a color tint is any color with white added. The effect of adding white will give a palette a more youthful, light feeling.


A color tone is simply adding grey to a color. Grey helps to adjust the intensity of a color so you gain a greater spectrum, especially working with a single color palette. Tones are the best choices for interiors because they make a space more interesting!


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Scout Sixteen is a lifestyle blog from Justin Livingston. Justin grew up in Mississippi but relocated to New York City in 2008. On Scout Sixteen, Justin shares his passion in fashion, travel, food and drink, and mental wellness.