Understanding the Color Wheel and Color Theory

Thinking about color theory probably takes most of us back to grade school. A time when it was hard to choose a favorite color because they were all so beautiful and mesmerizing. When a box of crayons or colored pencils provided hours and hours of endless exploration and for most of us coloring was probably one of the first creative outlets we experienced.


It’s actually very powerful to think of how the ways we color come into our lives from a very young age and we learn to tangibly put them together to create our own works of art. I have to admit, I’ve never been much of an artist, but fortunately when it comes to putting colors together I have a bit of a knack. Today we’ll delve into the rich and vibrant world of color theory and how it can support adults who love coloring books.

A Brief History of Color Theory

Believe it or not, color theory was originally a very science-based study and began in the eighteenth century in Europe derived from a combination of natural history, natural philosophy, and the arts. Scientists, philosophers and artists from DaVinci to Aristotle all suggested theories but none seemed totally conclusive. As the rise in production and manufacturing occurred in the eighteenth century the economic importance of understanding color was heating up due to the rise in color-making practices for textile dyeing and printing. The trend at the time was for each artist or artisan to create their own color palette leading to vast inconsistencies; creating a need for all of these theories to come together to create a comprehensive and visual system to identify the color and further bridge the gap between art and science.

The Birth of the Color Wheel

In the years to come, many different experts presented their theories and a clear trend began to form which combined many different elements including geological combinations, Meyer’s color triangle and most notoriously, Newton’s color wheel. In 1704, Sir Isaac Newton emphasized the arrangement of hues around the color wheel that corresponds to the wavelengths of light, one of the many instances of science playing a critical role in color theory. Through these combinations, a kind of classification began to arise to not only prove the number of colors in the world but also to standardize those colors. Ultimately this work brought important advancements in both commerce and the arts by classifying color theory into something understandable and standardized. Although there are variations on Newton’s color wheel the most important element is that the presentation is a logically arranged sequence.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors

According to Isaac Newton’s theory of color, there are twelve colors in the color wheel that make up primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Understanding these three concepts creates the foundation for mixing and combining colors. Primary colors are the hues blue, yellow and red. In theory, these three hues can be mixed in different combinations to create every other color. When the three primary colors are mixed together at once they create black. When two primary colors are combined the secondary colors of green, violet and orange are created. Orange is created by mixing red and yellow, violet from blue and red, and green from yellow and blue. The third and final set of hues are known as tertiary colors and are created by mixing adjacent primary and secondary colors on the color wheel, these colors are yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet, red-orange, and yellow-orange, with the primary color always mentioned first as a rule.

Coloring Harmony

Harmony is used to describe a lot of different creative arts like music and poetry but is just as important in coloring and artistry. If you do a lot of coloring in adult coloring books you’ve probably experienced harmony when the overall work is appealing to the eye and you have a feeling that the colors “just work” together. There are several theories in coloring harmoniously, but a few leading theories include, analogous colors, complementary colors and nature-based color schemes. Analogous colors are colors that are side by side on the color wheel like yellow-green, yellow, and yellow-orange which go very well when used together. Complementary colors are those directly across from one another on the color wheel including red and green. These colors really do complement one another and create the strongest impact because of contrast. The third type of color harmony, nature-based, is derived from the perfection of colors in nature. Nature produces perfect color combinations and can’t always be linked to the color wheel but can be really useful when looking for colors that work with one another (think green leaves with bright red colored flowers).

Understanding Tint, Shade, and Tone

Color theory also helps you create many different versions of colors in the same family as well as variations that are either lighter or darker. This occurs when a neutral color is combined with a basic color.

Once you’ve selected a basic color, it’s easy to create many different versions within the same family. All you need to do is combine that color with a neutral shade in order to make it lighter or darker. In interior design, this is known as tint, shade, and tone but you can use it for coloring as well! Tint occurs when a color is lightened by adding white, shade is darkening a color by adding black, and tone is slightly darkening a color by adding gray.

Taking Adult Coloring to the Next Level with Color Theory

At this point you may be thinking, well this is interesting but I’m not a professional artist, how can color theory help me to better color mandalas or doodles? Well, if you’re reading this article, you’re probably either a fan of adult coloring books or are interested in becoming an adult coloring pro. If that’s the case then understanding color theory will help you create incredible works of art with less trial and error because you’ll really understand which colors go best with one another. Further, different coloring mediums work in different ways. This makes it important to understand how to mix colors effectively. Whether you’re using colored pencils or watercolor pencils, you’ll want to know how to extend the longevity of your medium without wasting expensive supplies or coloring pages.

Don’t worry if color theory seems overwhelming to you, play around and try out different coloring combinations, you never know, maybe you’ll find the next great color!


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