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Learning how to use a color wheel is the simplest tool to use to help you choose color combinations that work well together. Learn the basics of how the color wheel works to successfully apply color theory in your decorating, card making, scrapbooking, even getting dressed in the mornings.

A Basic Color Wheel, a diagram that maps the colors of the rainbow.

When picking paint colors, one of the most common concerns is deciding which hues go together. The color wheel is a simple tool that can help answer that question. Every decorative color combination can be defined by where it resides on the color wheel, a diagram that maps the colors of the rainbow. The wheel makes color relationships easy to see by dividing the spectrum into 12 basic hues: three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors. Once you learn how to use it and its hundreds of color combinations, the color wheel can provide a helpful reference

How the Color Wheel Works

Primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. These colors are pure, which means you can’t create them from other colors, and all other colors are created from them. Between the equidistant primary color spokes on the color wheel are secondary colors: orange, green, and violet. These hues line up between the primaries on the color wheel because they are formed when equal parts of two primary colors are combined. Tertiary colors are formed by mixing a primary color with a secondary color next to it on the color wheel. With each blending (primary with primary, then primary with secondary), the resulting hues become less vivid.

How to Use the Color Wheel to Build Color Schemes

You can rely on the color wheel’s segmentation to help you mix colors and create palettes with varying degrees of contrast. There are four common types of color schemes derived from the color wheel.

1. Monochromatic Scheme

These tone-on-tone combinations use several shades (adding black) and tints (adding white) of a single hue for a subtle palette. Think pale blue, sky blue, and navy. Although the monochromatic look is the easiest color scheme to understand, it’s perhaps trickiest to pull off. A card filled with just one color can feel boring or overwhelming, depending on how you handle it. 

How to create a monochromatic card, monochromatic card
Monochromatic cards use the same colors in different shades. Also know as tone on tone.

2. Analogous Scheme

For a bit more contrast, an analogous palette includes colors found side by side on the wheel, such as orange, yellow, and green, for a colorful but relaxing feel. Neighboring hues work well in conjunction with each other because they share the same base colors. The key to success for this scheme is to pick one shade as the main, or dominant color; it’s the color you see the most of. Then choose one, two, or three shades to be limited-use accent hues. 

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In this card, notice how the shades of blue and purple on the butterflies create a easy on the eyes hue. Another example, is the greens and yellows. These colors are side by side on our color wheel.

3. Complementary Scheme

Using two hues directly opposite each other on the color wheel, such as blue and orange, is guaranteed to add energy to any card. These complementary colors work well together because they balance each other visually. You can experiment with various shades and tints of these complementing color wedges that find a scheme that appeals to you. A bright shade of orange offers warmth and brightness that balances a deep cobalt blue. The key is to not let one color overtake the other. 

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Just by putting a different background with a pattern paper you will see different colors. The ones that pop out first may not be the best colors to add to your base.

One of the many things I love about Stampin’ Up is they make it easy to match your colors. On the pack every pattern paper, or designer series paper pack you will find a list of color card stock that will match. This takes the guess work out of matching your paper. Shop PaperCraftsbyElaine.com/shopsu to learn more

4. Triadic Scheme

A triad creates an adventurous palette by using three hues evenly spaced on the wheel, such as turquoise, fuchsia, and yellow-orange. This combination forms a color palette with vivid contrast and balanced colors. These vibrant schemes work well with card making because they tend to offer a happy, energizing vibe. Use your three colors in varying shades and tints to create more contrast or soften the brightness. 

Chirstmas Penguin, new 2021 Christmas colors, New color Christmas Cards
In this example, I used the shades of purple and green with just a hint of orange.

As you create schemes using the color wheel, remember that color can also affect emotional responses and create a mood. Greens tend to soothe, for instance, while yellows are uplifting and energetic. Bold reds are passionate and daring, but soft pink is considered sweet and delicate. Blues are perceived as calming and quiet; oranges are warm and cozy; and purple, a truly complex color, can be seen as sexy or spiritual. Colors are considered warm or cool because of association. In my minds, we typically compare reds, oranges, and yellows with the warmth of the sun and fire. Blues, greens, and violets are cool because of their association with water, sky, and foliage. For a more balanced look, don’t limit your palette to all warm colors or all cool colors. Let one dominate and set the overall tone of your card, but be sure to include elements that offer contrast.