Color theory is both surprisingly complex and relatively simple. It refers to the diverse ways of blending colors to create something visually pleasing and harmonious. One of the most basic elements of color theory is the color wheel, a circular diagram of the colors. In order to understand the color wheel and the assorted color schemes that it suggests, you must first understand the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Light mixes differently than pigment, so it is important to let go of anything you might have learned in science class regarding the colors of light. Inks also mix differently than pure paints, so these explanations may not make as much sense to those who are familiar with the printing process. Below is an explanation of how paint colors mix.

Primary Colors

In painting, the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These are considered the pure hues, or the only colors that cannot be created by mixing other colors together. These paints do not contain any other hues that could alter their appearance.

Secondary Colors

The secondary colors—orange, green, and violet (purple)—are created by mixing two of the primary colors together in equal measure. Orange consists of red plus yellow. Green consists of yellow plus blue. Purple consists of red plus blue.

Tertiary Colors

The tertiary colors are made by mixing equal parts of one primary color and one secondary color. There are six tertiary colors: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green.

Although it is possible to mix your own secondary and tertiary colors, it is unnecessary and time-consuming. Many artists like to purchase a 12-color set of paints that includes all of the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Others purchase only the primary and secondary colors, and mix the tertiary colors themselves.


Black, white, and grey are considered neutrals. They can be used alone to add depth and contrast to a painting. In addition, they can be mixed into any other color to create shades, tones, and tints. A shade is created by adding black to a color. A tone is created by adding grey, while a tint is created by adding white. The amount of any neutral that you add affects the final appearance.

The Rest of the Colors

Although most color wheels show only the 12 primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, theoretically every possible color would have a home on the color wheel. Changing the mix of colors from a 50-50 ratio to something else will create a new color. For example, you might add just a few drops of blue to yellow paint to create a strong yellow-green, or a few drops of red to blue paint to create a dramatic blue-violet.

There is no right way to create your color scheme, but color theory will help you find solutions that are visually pleasing. Understanding how different colors are created is the first step toward choosing just the right color combination for your painting.