Decorating with Color: Understanding the color wheel and some color terminology

Hello and welcome to the first post of “Decorating with color”. I have decided to dedicate it to the color wheel as most of my future posts will either derive directly from it or mention it in one way or the other. This post is meant as reference for you to go back to when needed.

The color wheel is often associated with complex color theories but the wheel in itself is actually rather straightforward. The color wheel is in a reality simply a visual representation of the colors and their relationship to each others and a tool used by interior designers, artists or graphic designers to come up with color schemes. Most of the color wheels are 12 color wheels depicting the three primary colors (red, yellow and blue), the secondary colors obtained by mixing two primary colors (orange, purple and green) and the six tertiary colors obtained by mixing a primary with a secondary color (red–orange, red–violet, yellow–orange, yellow–green, blue–violet and blue–green). Why are blue, red and yellow called primary colors? Because by mixing them with each other it is possible to create pretty much any other color.

Now let’s tackle one of the confusing issue when dealing with color. The vocabulary! Indeed there is a specific vocabulary to describe colors, that even professionals get wrong. Let’s start with the easiest. The 12 colors that are the base of the color wheel are called hues. They are the colors in their purest and most vibrant form, a form that to be quite frank we associate more often with children’s drawings than with refined interiors. The decorator color wheel I use features three variables of each of the 12 base hues:

Tints: A tint is a color that has been lightened by adding white. The word that people understand the best is pastel. Those colors are light, friendly and quite feminine.

Shades: A shade is a color that has been darkened by adding black. Black can alter dramatically a color. Look at my color wheel below and see how yellow turns into olive on the inner circle when black is added.

Tones: A tone is a color that has been made less vibrant by adding grey. When talking about color grey is a mix of black and white in variable proportions. Every color that includes black, white and another color is technically a brown even though it might look grey. Most of the colors we see around us are toned down. They look more complex, sophisticated and less aggressive than pure hues.

In my next posts I will try not to bother you too much with those terms  so you don’t get confused but this explanation definitely needed to be addressed today.

I want to stress out the fact that the color wheel is not a tool for picking colors. It obviously represents only 48 colors out of the thousands that are available. It is really a tool for looking at color families and for brainstorming at the beginning of the creative process. My little designer color wheel allows me to see in a matter of seconds possible color family combinations, based on accepted color theories, that I might not have thought about. I’ll explore those theories with you when I’ll speak about specific color schemes like complementary, split-complementary or analogous color schemes. Not all successful color combinations can be based on color theories, but most of them are.

I will finish this post with some beautiful examples of color wheels designed in the 18th and 19th century. The first one is by Michel Eugène Chevreul, a french chemist who while directing the famous tapestry Gobelins manufactury in Paris studied the dyes and the interaction of colors on one another.

Below on the left is the color wheel was designed in 1775 by Ignaz Schiffermüller an Austrian naturalist who worked on a color system to name accurately insect colors. On the right is the color wheel designed in 1766 by Moses Harris, a British entomologist and engraver who studied Isaac Newton‘s color theory.

Have a lovely day!

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  • What a fascinating post, Corinne. Thanks so much for putting it together. I learnt so much. I’ll never mix up my tints, shades and tones again! J xReplyCancel

  • I’m studying interior design now, but color is one topic that I need a lot of practice with. Your definitions are really helpful. I’ve been thinking of buying a paint fan from B.M. to help me with color ideas. Would you recommend doing that?ReplyCancel

  • Great post! I love the illustrations from the 18th & 19th century!ReplyCancel

  • […] it looks to be. Because yes yellow can be acid and quite cool when it sits on the green side of the color wheel. As you can guess I am a little biased about yellow. Something to understand about color is […]ReplyCancel

  • […] a chance to come to Weimar, do not miss the visit of Goethe’s house who was one of the first color theorist of the 18th century. Every room is painted a different color and the combination is just marvelous. […]ReplyCancel

  • Lisa

    Corinne, I was thrilled to see this information again. I study this at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Ca, “Color Theory”. A blast from the past. The best class yet. It really trained my eyes for color. Adding black, white or grey to create the color you want to develop. Thank you for refreshing my memory. LisaReplyCancel

  • […] is called a diad color scheme. This means that it uses two colors located two steps apart on the color wheel, skipping the color in between (definition by Kate Smith to be found here). The orange is a tint […]ReplyCancel

  • […] like, those colors look more grown-up and sophisticated. For a refresher on color theory check out the post I had written on […]ReplyCancel