How to use a basic colour wheel to create harmonious colour schemes in your drawings

Before you can start mixing those primary colours and creating secondary and tertiary hues like a pro, you need to understand a little about colour theory. Luckily for you, we've got just the article to get you started - read on to learn all about the basic colour wheel, tints and shades, warm and cool colours, and more!

Colour can be tricky to get right in artwork, but you can create beautiful pieces with a bit of knowledge of how it works. Start with the basics: the artist's colour wheel shows all the primary, secondary, and tertiary colours in a circular form. Art shops supply ready-made colour wheels, or you can make your own at home.

Picture of the colour wheel

The basic colour terms

Each of the terms above has a specific meaning.

Primary colours cannot be created by mixing other colours - each has its unique hue. The three primary colours are red, yellow, and blue.

Secondary colours are created when you mix, or layer, two primary colours - so the result is orange when you combine yellow and red, green when you mix blue and yellow, and purple when you mix red and blue.

Tertiary colours are created when you take a primary or secondary colour and combine it with its adjacent neighbour on the wheel. The six examples below are all tertiary colours.

  • Red-orange
  • Yellow-orange
  • Blue-green
  • Yellow-green
  • Blue-violet
  • Red-violet

Choosing colour combinations from the basic colour wheel

You can use a basic colour wheel to experiment with colours and make new colours. Using paint, you would physically mix your pigments, but pencil artists need to be a little more creative. We combine our new colours by layering one on top of the other.

On the colour theory page, I talked about picking the "right" pairings when mixing, so I will look at why certain colour choices work, and others don't. It's all about harmony.

A good way of judging whether a colour combination is harmonious is to look at their position on the colour wheel. If they appear opposite each other, they will create a high-contrast, bright and vibrant image because the colours are complementary or opposites.

Using colours adjacent to each other on the wheel creates an analogous colour scheme which will be more subtle and harmonious. 

If you want to use a triadic or tetradic scheme, that's up to you, but be aware that choosing these three and four colour combinations makes it more challenging to create a harmonious image.

Analogous colours

As always, there is no right or wrong answer. It's all about personal preference. But if you want to create beautiful drawings filled with subtle, harmonious colours, then stick to an analogous scheme.

Analogous schemes create colour harmony and tend to recede, while complementary colours create contrast and jump out at the viewer.

Here's an example of using analogous colours to create a harmonious image.

The yellow-green, orange, and red-orange leaves work well as they are next to each other on the colour wheel. They also stand out against the complementary spots of blue in the background, which create a pleasant contrast.

Photo of analogous leavesThe leaves have an analogous colour scheme

The following image shifts one place on the colour wheel with the red, red-orange and yellow analogous scheme in the foreground. Again, the blue background uses the complementary colour to really make those flowers zing!

The blue is duller than in the leaves image, which adds more contrast, that of pure and greyed hues. To grey a colour, you add a bit of the complement.

Red hot poker photo showing good use of the colour wheelAnalogous colours work well in this photograph

Creating contrast through colour temperature - warm and cool colours

Another vital factor to consider when choosing colour schemes is each colour’s temperature, whether you are looking at analogous or complementary colours. Warm colours tend to move forward, while cool ones recede.

Let's take another look at the red hot poker photograph above. Do you see how the warm colours of the flowers are in your face, while the cool grey-blue background sits quietly in the distance? An excellent thing to keep in mind when considering what colour goes where in your drawing.

The value of values

We must not forget to consider value when choosing a harmonious colour scheme - the lightness or darkness of each colour.

The easiest way to determine the value of an image is to change it to grey-scale in a photo editing app by moving the saturation slider until you no longer see any colour.

I changed my red hot poker image to black and white. There is no longer much contrast between the flower and the background, resulting in a less attractive picture.

Grey scale version of the photo shows it is made up on all mid tonesGrey-scale version of the photo shows it is made up of mainly mid tones

The photo of leaves, however, has a good range of values. The yellow-green, orange, and red-orange are all light, while the darker greens, brown and even blue in the background still create contrast.

When you have a range of values within an image, it will appear more balanced and harmonious.

The leaves contrast with the value of the backgroundContrast between the values of the leaves and the background

If you want to make part of your image darker, use a darker version of the same colour, or mix it with black. Alternatively, choose another contrasting colour if you still want that extra oomph! Be aware that using too much black is rarely harmonious.

You can lighten a colour by putting down a layer of white pencil on the paper first, then layering over that. Be careful not to use too much pencil pressure when adding the white as this could limit the number of layers possible before running out of the paper tooth.

When creating a harmonious colour scheme, it's essential to use a variety of values to create interest and visual balance.

Before you go

We can tell that you're eager to create harmonious colour combinations for your coloured pencil drawings.

Now go forth and use these tips wisely so you too can create beautiful art using analogous colours, contrast through temperature (warm vs cool) or value (light vs dark). You'll be happy with the results!.

How to use a colour wheel to create beautiful coloured pencil art using harmonious colour schemes, with contrast in value and colour temperature.

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