How can I learn color theory

Color wheel explained simply - your comprehensive color theory guide

Creating art means more than just applying colors to a surface somehow. In-depth knowledge of color theory is essential to obtain high quality artistic results. These basics include knowledge of the color wheel - which colors go together and how do you use them to create a unique art object? The following instructions are intended to give an overview of the theory of colors and the different color circles.




What is the color wheel?

As the name suggests, colors are arranged in a circle in a color wheel in order to create a system of order. Art-making people can use this as a guide for their color compositions. Harmonies are also created using the color wheel so that various harmony teachings are based on it. Synonyms for the color wheel are color wheel, color wheel, hue or hue circle. There are many different versions of the color wheel. These depend on the division of the colors in

  • physical
  • aesthetic
  • physiological
  • artistic
  • technical

Aspects. There cannot be a color wheel that covers all perspectives and therefore has general validity, as the above-mentioned aspects can be very different from one another. In addition to their artistic application areas, color circles are also used industrially. With their help, colors and dyes can be reproduced with extremely small deviations.



Itten color wheel

Johannes Itten, a Swiss artist and art theorist, was born in 1888 in Wachseldorn in the canton of Bern. He quickly devoted himself to color theory and developed the color wheel, which is still the basis of art teaching in most schools today.

In the Itten color wheel, the colors are divided into

  • Primary colors
  • Secondary colors
  • Tertiary colors

This subdivision is based on the mixability of the individual colors. The colors red, yellow and blue are represented as primary colors in a triangle. The secondary colors, which can be mixed from the inner basic colors, form three further triangles in a 50:50 mixing ratio, which are arranged on the side of the triangle of the primary colors. An outer circle of tertiary colors encompasses the inner area and includes the primary colors again.

These cannot be mixed from other colors. However, they are used to mix secondary colors:

  • Blue and red make purple
  • Yellow and blue make green
  • Red and yellow make orange


The tertiary colors are the following:

  • Blue violet
  • Blue green
  • Orange red
  • Purple
  • Dark yellow
  • Light green

In Itten's color wheel, they are arranged between the respective primary colors and secondary colors, from which they can be mixed. The complementary colors are opposite each other in the color wheel. These are, for example, blue and orange or red and green. A mixture of two complementary colors results in gray.



Küppers color wheel

Harald Liebedank Küppers, a printing technician born in 1928 in Müden, based his color wheel on additive and subtractive color mixing. In addition, his theory is based on the human organ of vision. Küpper does not differentiate between primary, secondary and tertiary colors, but between primary colors and basic colors. According to Küppers, the primary colors are based on the fundamental human sensations. These are the following colors:

The basic colors are all derived from this:

  • Cyan blue
  • yellow
  • green
  • Magenta
  • Orange red
  • Violet blue
  • White
  • black

derivative work: McSush (talk) KüppersFarbenSonne.png: Harald Küppers, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Küppers describes white and black as achromatic colors. The Küppers color wheel is in principle not a circle, but a hexagon with the basic colors in the corners.



Color theory according to Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the most famous German poets. In addition to poetry, he devoted himself in particular to researching natural phenomena - and thus developed his own theory of colors. He assumed that light and darkness influence the visible colors and derived two primary colors from this: yellow for light and blue for darkness. In his investigations, his focus was on successive contrast, the afterimage colors of which he carefully studied. Furthermore, the so-called colored shadows were his profession. In this way he stated that magenta was another complementary color to green.

His color wheel, which he published in 1810, has a base of yellow, blue and purple as primary colors and green, orange and violet as mixed colors. His goal was particularly to create color guidelines for artists.


Primary colors

In principle, a very simple classification of the colors is possible by dividing them into three categories: the primary colors, the secondary colors and the tertiary colors. The former are the basic colors from which the other colors can be mixed.

Depending on the theory of color, however, the primary colors differ. In the subtractive color mixture, cyan, magenta and yellow are the primary colors. The colors red, green and blue are so-called light colors, which are the primary colors in additive color mixing.


Secondary colors

Secondary colors are characterized by the fact that they develop their complete luminosity. They contain neither white nor black parts. Secondary colors are mixed from the primary colors. It is astonishing that secondary colors are rarely found in nature. The human organ of vision can distinguish around 160 different secondary colors.


Tertiary colors

Tertiary colors are the colors most commonly found naturally, for a reason. The human eye is able to distinguish up to 100,000 different color nuances from this category. These colors always contain proportions of all three primary colors, which is why they are broken colors. This means that their radiance is diminished.

In our modern world, tertiary colors are particularly important for the screen design of digital media. Because of the reduced luminosity, these colors are easy on the human eye.



Use of the color wheel in practice

If you want to capture a work of art on canvas, you need more than just creativity. Simply mixing a few colors together and starting painting is not enough. First of all, you should think about the composition of the picture and the color scheme. Artists also speak of the color scheme. The color wheel is there for exactly this purpose. With its help, you can optimally plan your work from start to finish.

A harmonious color composition is not just a question of individual taste. There are even universal schemes that automatically appeal to or repel people. In the course of time, many different approaches have been developed, which of course can be combined with one another:

  • Context of the work of art and especially the colors
  • Analog composition of the colors
  • Use of complementary colors
  • Monochromatic
  • Use of split complementary contrasts
  • Triadic

Context is about embedding one color in various other colors and their respective effects on one another. Depending on which colors you use, they have different effects on each other.

Apart from the methods mentioned above, there is always the possibility of developing your own ideas and combining colors outside the mainstream.



Color wheel: which colors go together?

Art newcomers in particular often wonder how exactly colors can be combined to create a harmonious overall picture. The color wheel can be a good aid to answer this question.

In the last section we discussed different methods for achieving a good color composition. We want to elaborate on these now.

  • Analog color structures live from neighboring colors in the color wheel. The artist chooses a color from the color wheel and the two direct neighbors. In this way, an interplay of colors is created that has no great contrasts and appears harmonious and gentle on the viewer. Of course, the next two neighbors in the color circle can also be brought on board.
  • With the complementary color selection In practice, the opposite arises: the neighboring colors are not selected, but those that are exactly opposite each other in the color wheel. To achieve a slightly milder effect, you can move one color further on the color wheel. You should practice with complementary contrasts before using them on high-priced canvases, because experience and a sure instinct are required.
  • Monochromatic means that a single color and its gradations are used. The color is lightened with the help of white and black. The result is a harmonious color image that can be used as a background or frame, for example.
  • The split complementary contrast lives from a dominant color that is combined with two adjacent complementary colors. This creates a mild yet high-contrast connection, but it can be a little difficult for beginners. Experience is required with this method, so - similar to the pure complementary contrast - it should first be practiced on more favorable surfaces.
  • The triadic scheme is applied by choosing three colors evenly distributed on the color wheel. This means that the distances between the colors are the same. They are at the same angle to each other, so the three colors can be easily selected. Based on this, additional colors can be used as a supplement, which can be found according to the same scheme. The triadic color scheme uses high-contrast color tones that catch the viewer's eye without appearing too intrusive.


Color temperature

Colors convey certain feelings to the viewer so that properties can be assigned to them. Color psychology, for example, makes use of this, which we will deal with later in the text. First of all, colors are divided into cold and warm colors. While the former are classified in the color wheel between purple and yellow, the latter are classified between the colors blue-violet and green. Blue tones are therefore more likely to be perceived as cold and red tones as warm.


Color brightness

The word color brightness sounds banal at first, but it is precisely this characteristic that gives depth to a color and thus to a work of art. Because the color brightness makes an image appear three-dimensional. It is up to the artist to add the colors black or white and thus to darken or lighten them.

One also speaks of the so-called color weight and thus of heavy or light colors.


Color saturation

Color saturation is about the perceived intensity of the colors. Pastel and soft or bright and immediately eye-catching colors - it is up to the artist to create a trendy or romantic-looking picture. The saturation in the color wheel is 100%. If you add gray to the colors, they fade until they result in a washed-out color image. The higher the color saturation, the less gray they contain and the stronger the colors appear.



Color psychology

We have already mentioned that colors can have a certain effect on the psyche. Depending on whether they are warm or cold, they can have a calming or stimulating effect. Color psychology makes use of this fact. Nowadays this is an integral part of marketing departments. Entire professions have formed around them. With their help, people can be subtly influenced with regard to their emotions and thus also their purchase decisions. The different colors were classified according to their effect on people of different states of mind. The following chapters are intended to give a rough overview of colors and their influence on the psyche.



"Hope is green" - as an old saying goes. Not without reason, because like no other color, green stands for flourishing life and nature. Green tones are the most common colors in our lives and are also among the most popular. For example, they play an important role in interior design. With its calming and relaxing influence on the psyche, green supports people in the fight against depressive and anxious states. Green helps against nervousness and gives a feeling of vitalization and renewal. Attributes ascribed to this color are the following:

  • invigorating
  • refreshing
  • helps with self-control
  • Promotes human autonomy, endurance and self-confidence



Hardly any color is perceived to be as bright as yellow. It stands for a good attitude towards life, charisma and an optimistic attitude. Golden yellow shades are perceived as particularly positive. Yellow stands out in every painting and every room and immediately captivates the viewer.

It has many other positive effects:

  • Stimulation of thought processes
  • Promote creativity
  • Stimulation of the nervous system and memory
  • Promote communication



Trust and the feeling of being able to let go - this is what blue signals. The viewer is given a binding and reliable feeling. Blue is a color that is calming and has even been shown to lower the pulse. At the same time, it is powerful and can give a gentle push in the right direction in the event of mental blocks.

Your other effects:

  • Promote a cool but calm and powerful self-confidence
  • Strengthening intuition
  • Stimulation of emotions such as balance, serenity and attachment



Red is the color of struggle, but also of love and strong feelings. This color gives the viewer one thing above all else: energy. Whether you use it positively or negatively is up to you. As a signal color, red attracts attention and is an eye-catcher everywhere.

In addition, their modes of action are as follows:

  • Activation of energy and strength
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Conveying a sense of protection
  • Increase in self-esteem, vitality and dynamism
  • Promotion of passionate and erotic feelings



Violet is considered a royal color and is made up of the colors red and blue. It combines the positive properties of these two colors, but at the same time exudes a very spirituality. Creative people in particular prefer purple tones.

Their effects on the psyche are as follows:

  • Stimulation of the body and mind
  • Promote sensuality
  • Activation of creativity
  • Calming the psyche



Orange and red are brothers, so to speak. However, red is usually much more popular with the viewer, as orange is often perceived as somewhat unpleasant. No wonder, because in addition to its positive effect, this color also reflects a certain inner turmoil.

In addition, however, it gives the viewer many positive properties:

  • Positive influence on energy and joie de vivre
  • Expression of fun and conviviality
  • Stimulation of appetite



Most brides still wear white, and it's no coincidence. This color - more precisely, according to Itten, a non-chromatic or achromatic color - radiates purity and innocence. It also stands for peace and a neutral mindset. For this reason, doctor's coats are also white, by the way.

Other effects are:

  • Purification of the mind
  • Stimulation of the sense of order
  • Promoting a peaceful and pure mind
  • An impetus for a new beginning



Gray, the color of age and thus of wisdom - older people carry a certain life experience with them. Gray is considered dignified and exudes a time-honored presence. At the same time, it appears conservative and authoritarian. It is predestined as a simple background color for gaudy shades.

It also works as follows:

  • Promote a certain level of expectation
  • Promotion of neutrality
  • Radiance of indifference and distance



Black is - even if it sounds paradoxical - probably one of the most and at the same time the least expressive (non-) colors.

Black symbolizes nothingness, emptiness, any absence of light. At the same time, black can really act as a catalyst for other colors and make them really shine. Fashion in black symbolizes elegance and a classic and cultivated attitude.

Other effects are the following:

  • Gives feelings of inconspicuousness, elegance and calm
  • Stands as a symbol for infinity and emptiness
  • Creation of a feeling of finiteness and at the same time hope for a new beginning
  • Promotion of ambition and motivation
  • At the same time, however, a stimulus for rebellion