Color Theory In Painting: Analogous, Triadic and Complementary Colors Schemes

Color is known to affect our moods and emotions, so it makes sense to rely on color as a key element in your painting for conveying meaning or depicting an atmosphere. But color selection is an important process. You want the colors you are using to work well together, and it can be confusing at first to know how many colors to use and which ones work together. Understanding color theory is an excellent way to simplify those decisions, and I’m here to help you by breaking down the basics of color theory in painting.

Color Theory in Painting: A Palette of Colors

Photo via the Craftsy class Master Palettes: Exploring Color Mixing

A word about the color wheel

The first color wheel was made by Isaac Newton in the 17th century. Using a prism to decompose white sunlight into the colors of the spectrum, he then joined the two ends of the spectrum to form the wheel.

The color wheel used by artists today is the RYB color wheel (red, yellow and blue). It is a subtractive color wheel, which means that colors become darker when mixed. With an additive color wheel, colors made by a light source would get lighter as you mix them. The best example of this is on a computer screen.

Depending on the complexity of the color wheel, you will find a different number of colors. However, the simplest color wheels have 12 colors:

  • The three primaries: That means colors that can’t be obtained by mixing other colors, all other colors on the wheel can be mixed from these three primaries.
  • The three secondary colors: These are obtained by mixing two of the primary colors
  • The six tertiary colors: Such colors are obtained by mixing two secondary colors contiguous on the wheel. That is, a tertiary color is obtained by mixing two secondary colors or one primary and one secondary color.
RYB 12-Color Color Wheel
RYB color wheel via Wikimedia commons

How to use the color wheel to select a beautiful and harmonious palette.

There are many combinations of colors or color schemes that will work for your painting. Here are three simple ways to find some of them by using the color wheel:

Analogous color scheme

Analogous colors are three or more colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, like the circles in the picture below. Using this type of color scheme makes the painting look harmonious, but the actual feeling conveyed will depend on the colors you chose based mostly on their temperature: warm colors versus cold colors.

Analogous Color Scheme on a Color Wheel

Analogous color scheme via Wikimedia commons

In that scheme, one color is usually predominant, and it is usually the color in the center of the scheme. In the example below, light green would most likely be the predominant color, but there are also yellow and blue hues in the painting.

Green Bouquet With Analogous Colors Scheme

Green Bouquet via Sandrine Pelissier

This still life has a analogous color scheme with hues of yellow, blue and green.

Triadic color scheme

A triadic color scheme will include three colors from the color wheel that are equally spaced to form a triangle, or if you are using a 12 color wheel, the scheme would be comprised by selecting every fourth color on the wheel.

Triadic Color Scheme on 12-color wheels

These are the four combinations of triadic colors you can get with a 12 colors color-wheel. You can get more combinations with a more complex color wheel.

When working with a triadic color scheme, usually one of the three colors is the dominant color. The other two will be use for contrasting accents. 

You can mix a range of colors from the three colors you selected. Mixing the three colors together will give you interesting hues of brown.

Blooming Peony Using a Triadic Color SchemeBlooming Peony by Sandrine Pelissier

This painting is an example of a triadic color scheme.

Complementary color scheme

Complementary colors are colors that are located across each other on the color wheel. For example red-green, blue-orange and purple-yellow.

Complementary Colors on the Color Wheel

Complementary color scheme yellow-purple: The two colors are located across each other on the color wheel.

When a painting is made using a complementary color scheme, the result is usually very vibrant and high-contrast. As in the other color schemes, you will get better results if one of the colors is dominant while the other is used as an accent.

Ferry Dock Painting

Ferry dock by Sandrine Pelissier

This painting uses hues of blue as the main “dominant” color with a mix yellow-orange accents. 

Color theory is only the beginning! You can learn to utilize color like a master in the Craftsy class Painting With Color: A Contemporary Approach, as you begin to use color to expresses form, value and dimension in captivating ways!

What is your favorite color scheme and why?


Kim Petrella

I teach elementary school art (K-4). My curriculum dictates that I begin color theory in kindergarten, gradually increasing the information through 4th. It’s so difficult to teach how we see color through light but I do touch on it with the basics. One of the most common questions that I get from them however is where do the primary colors come from? How might you respond to that?

Albert Francis

Just thought of answering your questions. 1) How do we see colors? — Colors are just a perception by our brain — a perception caused by how frequently the light’s electric and magnetic fields change when they reach the eyes (so, it depends on the frequency of light reaching our eyes, not actually the wavelength of light rays). The same light ray can be perceived as a different color if it reaches the eye at a different frequency (called “Doppler effect”). 2) Where do primary colors come from? — it’s what you choose and is actually up to you! A pigment reflects only a fraction of light which falls on it and absorbs the other part (and the reflected part is what you see as its color). Now, when you mix two color pigments, they would only emit whatever is common to both of them (“subtractive mixing”). So, you wouldn’t really want so much of that “subtraction” taking place which results in dull colors. So, in order to get bright/ saturated colors, you have to mix colors sparingly and mix only those which lie adjacent to each other on the color wheel (and if to get dull colors like brown/ gray, then vice-versa). Now, another fact is that, the result of mixing lies somewhere inside the polygon joining those colors on the color wheel (I mean, in a color wheel where brighter colors are more towards the periphery and duller colors lie towards the center). If you have more colors (single-pigment), or if you have brighter colors, in both cases, you have more possible mixtures (that cover more of the color wheel). Now, if you can’t buy so many of them, what would you do? You would just pick 3 of them which are as far away from each other as possible and which are also easily available pigments and also “bright enough” to cover more of color wheel (3 is the minimum to make a polygon). Artists happened to choose these 3 as the bare minimum. Now, in fact, I would suggest the use of 4 primaries including a single-pigment green, because mixing yellow and blue gives a dull green.


Physics. Go into how the color is produced by atomic activity with energy


What defines warm or cool colors? How to find if one yellow is cool but a different one is warm? Is there a listing of which color is what?

Albert Francis

It’s probably because humans associate red, orange or yellow to hot/ warm things (red-hot iron, warm sunny day) and violet, blue, green etc to cold/ cool things (ice in Antarctica, sky during night). Same way, we associate these “warm colors” with sour tastes and citrus smells (orange and other fruits). So, if a green looks more yellowish or reddish, it’s considered warm and and if it looks more bluish, it’s considered cool. A red which is more yellowish/ orange-ish is said to be “warm” and if more bluish, it’s “cool”. So, artists use “warm” colors so that the viewer has the tendency to associate it with something warm, and vice-versa.


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