Colour theory and the Colour Wheel

Colour theory is concerned with the creation of colour combinations via relationships. They are created by the position of the colours on the colour wheel.

The complexity of colour theory really becomes huge when you start taking into account different hues, shades and tones.


Primary colours can be divided into two different types: additive and subtractive. The additive primaries are those which are obtained by light: red, green and blue. They combine to form white and form the basis of colours on screen. Subtractive primaries are those obtained by the subtraction of light: cyan, magenta and yellow. They form the basis of ‘four colour’ printing and combine to form black.


The Colour Wheel

The colour wheel not only helps understand the relationship of different colours but also the classification of colours. It also provides a quick reference to the primary, secondary and tertiary hues.


The primary, secondary and tertiary hues are shown in the diagram below. As you can see, it’s pretty straight”forward to see how each is produced; primary colours combined create secondary colours. Tertiary colours are created by combining a Primary and a Secondary. Things start to get interesting when you isolate di!erent combinations of colours and this is when we get into the realms of colour wheel selections.

Colours, when selected from the colour wheel in certain combinations, interact together. This is the basis of colour palettes; the interaction of colours. Knowing the basis of these colour combination types is essential in creating palettes. True, you can rely on gut instinct, (as many designers do), but more often than not these decisions are based on experience of seeing these colour combinations everywhere in everyday life. Really, once you start to notice these di!erent combinations, it will drive you bonkers.


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