Working with Colour

By Cynthia Colosimo Robbins
Forteau, Labrador

Colour Wheel

A colour wheel is a useful tool to show us how colours are mixed and how they can be used.

You can purchase a colour wheel guide in art supply shops. There are different types but they usually have a section you can rotate to see how different colours mix to create new colours, or tints and shades of a colour.

Mixing Colours

Blank Colour Wheel – Click to Download the PDF

You can also try creating your own Colour Wheel with water paints. This is a useful exercise to help you remember how colours are mixed. Read through the descriptions below, and see if you can mix the Secondary and Tertiary Colours using just Red, Blue and Green.

Try printing this blank colour wheel, and using only Blue, Yellow and Red to mix colours. If possible print on a laser printer on heavy paper or card stock.

Primary Colours

The primary colours are RED, BLUE and YELLOW. In colour theory, all other colours can be mixed using these colours.

When mixing colour in real life, with paint or dye, sometimes the colour pigment isn’t a true red, blue or yellow and the colours you mix might look a little off. When mixing paint, try to find a true red with no hint of yellow or purple, and a true blue, like ultramarine, with no hint of green.

Secondary Colours

Secondary Colours
Secondary Colours

Secondary colours are the colours created by mixing two of the primary colours.

Red (primary) + Yellow (primary) = Orange (secondary)
Blue + Yellow = Green
Red + Blue = Violet, or Purple

Tertiary Colours

Tertiary Colours
Tertiary Colours

Tertiary colours are made by mixing a primary colour with a secondary colour.

Red (primary) + Orange (secondary) = Red-Orange.
Red + Violet = Red-Violet
Yellow + Orange = Yellow-Orange
Yellow + Green = Yellow-Green
Blue + Green = Blue-Green
Blue + Violet = Blue-Violet

Mixing Brown

Usually we use a brown pigment if we are painting or dyeing something, but you can mix brown using the primary colours. Try starting with orange or red-orange and mixing in green. Browns vary and you can add black, red, or yellow to adjust the colour.

Warm Colours

Warm Colours
Warm Colours

Warm colours have yellow or red in them.
Warm colours tend to advance in a picture- they seem to be closer.
Warm or hot colours are associated with warm or hot moods or emotions.

Cool Colours

Cool Colours
Cool Colours

Cool colours have blue in them.
Cool colours tend to recede in a picture – they appear to be further away.
Cool colours are associated with cool emotions or moods.

Analogous Colours

Analogous Colours are the colours beside each other on the colour wheel, for example, Blue, Blue-Green and Green.

Analogous colours can create a harmonious colour scheme.

Complementary Colours

Complementary Colours
Complementary Colours

Complementary colours are opposite each other on the colour wheel. A colour looks brighter when it is beside its complementary colour than it does when it is beside other colours.

You can tone down a colour by mixing in a bit of its complementary colour to make it less bright.

You can liven up a colour scheme by using a little of the complementary colour, or a lighter or duller shade of the complementary colour in some elements of your design.

Colours look brighter when placed with their complementary colour than on a neutral background.

Black and White

In colour theory, black contains all colours and white is the absence of colour. You can try mixing red, yellow and blue paint to see how close you can get to creating black. It’s hard to do, but you can see how you get shades of brown, and grey as you try. Usually we use a black pigment if we are painting or dyeing something.

Tints, Shades, Tones, Hues

Tints are lighter – the colour plus white.
Shades are darker – the colour plus black.
Tones are duller – the colour plus grey, or sometimes the colour plus a bit of its complementary colour.
Hue is another word for Colour.

Value: Light and Dark

Using Value to Show Depth: Objects that are further away are lighter in value and have less contrast. Objects that are closer show more contrast - the darks are darker and the lights are lighter.
Using Value to Show Depth: Objects that are further away are lighter in value and have less contrast. Objects that are closer show more contrast – the darks are darker and the lights are lighter.

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of colours. White is the lightest value and black is the darkest. The value halfway between is called middle grey.

Using different values, different degrees of light and dark, you can create contrast, show forms and indicate if an object is near or far.


Low and High Contrast
Low and High Contrast

You can create contrast by placing opposite elements next to each other. The colours white and black provide the greatest degree of contrast. Complementary colours also contrast with one another.

Contrast can be used to create visual interest and to direct the viewer’s attention to a particular point of interest, the focal point of a design.

You can also create contrast with texture (rough and smooth) or shape (large and small, or simple and complex).

Colour Schemes

A colour scheme is a group of colours that you choose to work with in your design. Often we make choices about colour based on our instincts or on traditions and trends.

There are also types of colour schemes based on what we’ve learned about colour theory. Three common types of colour schemes are monochromatic, analogous, and complementary.

Monochromatic Colour Scheme: A colour scheme that uses one colour plus tints, tones and shades of that colour.

Analogous Colour Scheme: This is a colour scheme that uses colours that are found side by side on the colour wheel. These mixed colours have one colour in common and go well together. The colour scheme could include lighter and darker tints, tones and shades of those colours.

Complementary Colour Scheme: A complementary colour scheme is created by using colours that are opposite one another on the colour wheel. As we know, complementary colours make each other look brighter, so using a bit of the opposite colour can really liven up a colour scheme. A complementary colour scheme using colours at their full strength can be too bright – think of red and green at Christmas – but by using lighter tints and darker shades of the opposite, the colour scheme is livened up without looking too garish.

Planning a Colour Scheme

Here’s an exercise to help you learn about colour schemes. Imagine you are planning a quilt. How would you choose the colours?

You can print out the quilt pattern pages below and try colouring them in with different types of colour schemes – monochromatic, analogous and complementary. See how the pattern changes with different colours.

When you have experimented a bit, then try again as if you were planning a real quilt and choose the colours you would like to use in your quilt. Remember to try light and dark values of the colours.

You can colour in the pages using crayon, coloured pencils or paint. You can also try cutting out pieces of fabric or coloured paper and gluing them on. You might want to print the pages on card stock if you are using paint or glue.

Quilt Exercise 1 – Click to Download the PDF
Quilt Exercise 2 – Click to Download the PDF

Colour Palettes

When we are making works of art or craft, the colours we choose for a piece are called the colour palette. Even if we are choosing colours just because we like them, or because they are the colours found in nature, we can analyse the colour palette in our work to see how colour theory applies.

The pictures of the watercolour painting and the quilt below show the colour palette used in each design.

The painting has a colour palette that has been inspired by nature – fall leaves and fish in a stream, but when we analyse the palette, we can see that it uses the complementary colours blue and orange, and colours analogous to them.

When we analyse the colour palette of the quilt, we see that it has been made with colours that are analogous to purple – blue and pink. We also see that a small amount of yellow, the complementary colour of purple has also been used to create bright spots.

Try analysing the colour palettes you have used in your work. You might be surprised at how much you already know about how to use colour.

Colour Saturation

The colour palettes in the pictures above also illustrate colour saturation. The quilt uses saturated colours, colours that are very deep. If you were painting or dyeing something to get those colours, you would have to use a lot of pigment.

The watercolour painting uses less saturated colours. There is very little pigment in the paint and the colours are faint when compared to the quilt.

A Note about RGB Colour

When mixing light to create colour, like your computer screen does, the colours used are red, green and blue. With RGB Colour, all colours mix to make white, and black results from the absence of colour.