The Color Wheel: Your Guide to Choosing Perfect Paint Schemes

The Color Wheel: Your Guide to Choosing Perfect Paint Schemes

Dabney Frake
May 1, 2014
(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

The color wheel is a basic tool for decorating, especially for beginners. It's your guide to choosing color schemes that work. Here are the basics and most common strategies, along with tips on how to navigate the wheel to get the perfect paint job.


First, a refresher on the basics: The classic color wheel is made up of 12 different hues. One half is considered cool colors, and the other contains warmer hues. Beyond that, the wheel is further classified into: 1. Primary Colors; 2. Secondary Colors; and 3. Tertiary Colors.

(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Primary colors are colors in their own right and can’t be created by mixing other colors.

(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Secondary colors are created by mixing two primary colors to get either purple, green or orange.

(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Tertiary colors come from mixing one primary color with one adjacent secondary color.

(Image credit: Adobe)

More advanced color wheels (such as this fancy pants one from Adobe) give a much larger range of colors than the first examples above — both in terms of the number of hues (as you circle around the wheel), and in terms of saturation (colors become less so as you move toward the center).


Within each color family, there are a range of tints, shades, and tones.

(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Tints come from adding white to any hue.

(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Shades come from adding black.

(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Tones come from adding gray.

So, given all the options, how do you choose what works well together? Try these classic color combinations:


(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Choose shades, tones and/or tints of the same color throughout the room or home, with little variation. Doing so produces almost a gradient effect.

(Image credit: Lonny)

One-color rooms are perfect for those who want to dip their toes in the world of color, but don’t want to go crazy. Monochromatic schemes are more peaceful as a rule, as the eye can move easily around the room without interruption by other colors. However, the different color values add depth and interest to the space.

(Image credit: Michael Graydon)

Color Tip: Color evoke moods, and deep cool colors in particular project calmness and serenity. Since monochromatic schemes make maximum use of one color, all blue or all green rooms are great for places to hunker down and relax, like bedrooms and libraries. Imagine an intimate dinner party around this cozy blue table setting one evening. (Since warmer colors are about high energy and emotion, it would be a completely different feeling than an entirely red room.)


(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Choose two or more colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel, and you get an analogous color scheme.

(Image credit: Marie Claire Maison)

Like monochromatic color schemes, analogous paint colors are harmonious to the eye. Because nature often features analogous color schemes (think sunsets in the room featured above), these palettes are particularly pleasing.

(Image credit: Marie Claire Mason)

Color Tip: If you are worried about being overwhelmed by color, use it in smaller doses to accent rather than dominate. For example, the green pillow, painted stripe, and teal blanket in the bedroom above are all easy to switch out if they're not working for you down the road.


(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Choose two colors that are directly opposite each other on the wheel.

(Image credit: Studio Pepe)

The contrast creates interest and energy in the room, yet still makes visual sense to the eye. In this bedroom, warm orange and cool turquoise are complete opposites that nonetheless attract and make a beautiful pair. The blue-green makes up the majority of the room, but the orange highlights specific elements to which the designer wants to call attention.

(Image credit: Lydia Brotherton)

Color Tip: Keep existing woodwork, furniture, or countertops in mind and choose paint color that will work with those elements already in place. Above, deep blue walls play nicely off the complementary orange tone of the wood furniture.


(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Triadic color schemes are created from three equally spaced colors on the wheel (that form an equilateral triangle).

(Image credit: Sanderson)

Triadic palettes are particularly vibrant and energetic, due to the immense diversity in hues. Because of all the contrast, balance is key. In the room above, teal is the primary color, and the soft red and mustard are used more sparingly.

(Image credit: Lonny)

Color Tip: Choosing less saturated colors is a way to tweak the scheme, making a room less intense or gaudy. The living room above is decorated in primary red, yellow and blue, but the softer (almost pastel) tints avoid association with an elementary school classroom or pile of LEGO bricks.


(Image credit: Dabney Frake)

Split complementary combos are formed by finding complements across the wheel, then choosing hues on either side of one of the complementary colors.

(Image credit: Lonny)

There's still variety here, but it's lessened by choosing colors that are related to, but aren't exactly, the first color's direct opposite. Here, teal is balanced by a range of peachy and red-orange colors on the warmer side of the wheel.

(Image credit: Angie Hranowsky)

Color Tip: Don't feel like each element in a chosen color has match perfectly. Use the entire family of tones, tints and shades throughout the room. The living room above uses various shades of rosy red, purple-y brown, and darker plum, but still maintains the overall scheme. In fact, the slight variations keep the room from looking too pat and overly designed.


Neutrals — like gray, black, white, and brown — are an important part of any color scheme. If you have a lot of bright colors, adding in neutral will help break them up and balance it out. You can also use them to help lighten or tone down the room. And then, of course, if you're still afraid, start with a neutral scheme, and use colorful accents to make it fun.

There's always more to learn with color, but you should have a basic grasp on creating your own color schemes. The only way to learn is to practice, so get out there and try it yourself!

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