Introduction to every interior designer's favourite tool: the colour wheel

Introduction to every interior designer's favourite tool: the colour wheel

By Iona Bower on

If you’re planning to paint your walls but don’t know where to start, the colour wheel can give you some inspiration before you hit the paint charts.

Meet the colour wheel.

This handy tool for helping artists create colour schemes is actually the brainchild of Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. Yes, that same one with the gravity discoveries. He was not a man to sit idle. 

The colour wheel forms the basis of ‘colour theory’. Newton mapped the colours found in a prism onto a ‘wheel’ of 12 ‘hues’ (more of them later) - six warm and six cool. The hues are made up of the three primary colours, three ‘secondary’ colours, each made by mixing two of the primary colours, and then six ‘tertiary colours, made by mixing a primary and a secondary colour. Phew! Time for a sit down. 


photo of the decorator's colour wheel presented by circles painted in various colours and arranged symmetrically in a ring shape

Whether you're an interior designer in need of a colour wheel knowledge refresh, a decorating beginner or simply a colour lover - here's our simplified introduction to the mighty colour wheel and its colour arrangements.


The colour wheel and its colours.

In terms of colour and design, the colour wheel is a useful tool used in colour theory to show the relationships between different colours. The traditional colour wheel is made up of 12 colours, primary colours are red, blue, and yellow, which cannot be created by mixing any other colours. 

The secondary colours are green, orange, and purple, which are created by mixing two primary colours together. 

Tertiary colours are the six colours that are created by mixing a primary colour with a secondary.


The colour wheel also shows us how colours can be related to each other. 

Colours next to each other are called analogous. They look great together because they are similar, creating a harmonious and calming palette.

Colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel are called complementary colours. They create a bold, high-contrast statement when used together as its unexpected pairing creates intrigue.

Finally, triadic schemes are three colours that are evenly spaced around the colour wheel, creating a scheme like this will give a more dynamic feel that has balance and complexity.

The colour wheel helps us to know which colours go well together, and it makes it easier to choose beautiful pairings for all sorts of projects.


photo of a colour wheel presented by circles painted in different colours and arranged in a ring shape

The analogous colours of the colour wheel.

How to find complementary colours for decorating schemes.

Complementary colours sit next to each other on the colour wheel. They work in harmony with each other, in pairs, such as yellow and green or purple and blue, sitting easily together. Complementary colours are the most commonly used in decorating; they’re easy to choose and easy to live with. All you need to do is pick a hue that you like and choose a colour next to it. Simple. They’re also known as analogous or harmonious colours. YesColours’ Calming Green and Calming Blue make a harmonious pairing. 

photo of a colour wheel presented by colourful circles painted in different colours and arranged in a symmetrical ring shape

The complementary colours of the colour wheel.

How to find contrasting colours on the colour wheel.

Contrasting colours also work well together but sit opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as yellow and purple or red and green. They’re bolder and less harmonious than complementary hues, but these pairings work just as well, especially when used as large blocks of colour, and they’ll give you a scheme with real impact. You could try YesColours’ Passionate Lilac and Electric Yellow, for example.



Using a colour wheel to group colours in other ways.

You could go for monochromatic or tonal colours, so choose one hue and then pick tints and shades from it, ranging from the darkest shade on the outside of the wheel to the lightest in the centre. 

Another grouping is a triadic scheme where you pick three colours that are evenly spaced around the wheel. Or you could go for a tetradic scheme of four colours made up of two contrasting pairs, creating a square on the colour wheel.


How do I choose paint colours?

The colour wheel is great for a bit of inspiration but only takes you so far. Once you’ve come up with an idea for a scheme, start building a mood board. Include images you come across in your colour scheme as well as objects that will accessorise with it and even quotes that you feel could inspire the scheme. While you’re slowly piecing your mood board together, get ordering paint swatches and then paint samples in your chosen colour schemes so you can play about with them and start picking actual paint colours. Test your paint samples at various times of day and on different walls to see how different light affects them. You can also try our interactive paint swatch palette to drop colours next to each other and see how they interact.


Colour wheel terminology.

Want to sound like a colour wheel aficionado? Here are a few bits of vocab to learn.

  • A hue is the colour itself, while a tint is a hue with white added and a shade a hue with black added. 
  • Tonal or monochromatic colours are different shades of the same hue.
  • Complementary colours are next to each other, while contrasting colours sit opposite each other. 
  • Colour theory is the psychology of colour; using the colour wheel but considering how various colours and combinations make you feel.


Check out our Colour Wheel video to see how to work with the colour wheel and its colours.


If you’re looking for a little help with choosing the right paint colours for your home decor palette, book a colour consultation with us. It's easy, it's fun... and there's a free option available too.

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