More About Paint Colors - The Color Wheel

Time and time again I see people struggling with color. Some people’s eyes literally glaze over with bewilderment when faced with a color decision.

Indeed, color selection can become the most difficult part of the whole house painting process. Sometimes, people struggle for weeks and even months, looking at paint swatches, putting up paint samples, talking to relatives, and still not being able to decide on a color scheme.

Perhaps you too have seen homes covered with dozens of paint samples. Well, take my word for it, there are a lot more of these samples at interiors of many more homes. I have seen some paint samples that, by the owner’s admission, have been there for years.

Why should so many smart people have such a hard time with color? Personally, I think it has a lot to do with confusions on some basic color terms and a lack of familiarity with basic color tools.

Color harmony is a very common color term used to describe certain color combinations that appear pleasing. Colors that do not appear to agree with each other or that clash are not in harmony. Developed through experience, there are easy rules that can help us to come up with harmonious color selections. Most of these rules involve the use the color wheel.

Before we get started on a practical application of the color wheel, we must first define some basic color terms and perhaps clear up some prior confusion on the subject of color.

A common source of confusion with color are words “tint,” “shade” and “tone.” People in general, and sometimes even those dealing with color professionally, use these words very loosely to describe any change in color.

Pure colors like pure red or green are rarely used in the creating of color schemes. Black, white or gray can be added to the pure color to change its characteristic in a specific way. The words “tint,” “shade” and “tone” are technical terms that describe each particular kind of change.

Tint – A color that has been lightened by the addition of white. For example, adding white to red makes pink, thus you may say that pink is a tint of red. The word “tint” is often used to describe the action of adding colorants to the paint base. This use of the word “tint” would be correct, in regards to our technical definition, if we were mixing the color with a white paint base. The problem is that not all of the paint bases are white, which can make such use of this word a bit misleading. Don’t get me wrong, I am not knocking the popular definition of “tint”, I am just pointing out the difference between the popular definition and the technical definition, which is the one that we will be using in talking about decorating with color.

color samples showing tint

Shade – A color that has been darkened by the addition of black. For example, adding black to green makes a shade of green, such as forest green. Brown is a shade of orange. Navy is a shade of blue which is made by adding black to blue. People will often use the word “shade” to mean any color variation. Someone may ask for a lighter shade of yellow, when what they really want is a tint (a mix of yellow and white).

color samples showing shade

Tone – A color with some gray added. Adding gray will result in the color being muted or toned down. We can gray out a color to the point where only a tiny hint of it remains. People may talk about a green tint of gray and really be meaning a tone of green.

color samples showing tone

The Color Wheel is a simple tool that can help us think about color. It is also one of the most powerful tools available for home decorating. The color wheel is basically a circle of colors represented in the color spectrum. A typical color wheel is made up of only 12 colors. Learn how these 12 combine and you will be able to create many great looking color schemes.

Color Wheel
Primary Colors

Three Primary Colors – Red, Blue and Yellow. Every other color is made up of some combination of these three. Primary colors by definition are those colors that cannot be created by mixing others.

Secondary Colors

Three Secondary Colors – Orange, Green, and Violet. These colors are made by two primary colors mixed together. yellow + red = orange; yellow + blue = green; red + blue = violet

Intermediate Colors

The remaining six, Inter­mediate Colors – Blue-Violet; Red-Violet; Red-Orange; Yellow-Orange; Yellow-Green; Blue-Green. Intermediate colors lie between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel. Intermediate colors are made by mixing together one primary and one secondary color. Note: Intermediate colors are often mistakenly called tertiary colors but this is technically incorrect. Tertiary color is a mixture of two secondary colors. Tertiarys do not appear on the color wheel.

The color wheel shows us how colors are related and can help us understand color balance and harmony. But the color wheel, at least in its basic form, has been with us since the seventeenth century. One can’t help but wonder why such a simple and yet powerful tool goes on to be so underutilized today.

Another major source of confusion about colors are color names themselves. It is not the names for colors on the color wheel that are the source of this confusion, but rather the names for the thousands of other colors that are produced by the inter-mixing the main twelve and also their tints, shades or tones.

I remember a time when I was working on a color scheme with one of my painting clients. We were discussing an exterior wall color which she was leaning toward using when I mentioned that the color would look better, with her green roof, if it was a bit redder. She would not hear of it. She told me that she did not like red and wanted no part of it on her home. It was not until I showed her a sample of the color I had in mind when she agreed it was a better choice. She was still a bit confused though as to why I was calling red what looked to her like an “off white”. Yes, I guess you could have called that color an “off white” but this name would also apply to at least two dozens other colors that I could make with the use of, not more then, the twelve basic colors of the color wheel.

This was just one example of confusion with color because of a lack of a proper color definition. Indeed, just take a look at some of the color names given by paint manufacturers: “Italian Iris”, “Province”, “Berry Blush”, “Loyalist”, etc. I guess these names are given to excite our imaginations. Well, God knows we can all use some excitement in that area. But the main reason for a name is to create a mental association to the physical object or an attribute of some sort. When I say the word “cat” you may get a mental picture of a cat. When I say “yellow” both you and I will most likely be able to identify it on the color wheel.

There is a better way to identify colors than to pull names out of a hat. Let’s define a few more color terms.

Hue – The pure color with no white, black or gray added. For example, the hue for pink is red.

Value – The degree of light reflectance of a color. The value of the color is changed in proportion to the amount of white and/or black added. The greater the amount of white the higher the value. Similarly, the more black the lower the value.

Note: It should be noted here that adding medium gray (about an even mix of white and black) can mute the color without changing its light reflecting qualities very much. The light gray (more white) will increase the value as well as mute the color. The dark gray (more black) will decrease the value of the color as well as mute it.

Complementary Colors lie opposite each other on the color wheel. These colors always go well with each other, hence the term complementary. Some of the most popular color schemes are based on color complements.

So, how does this information help us and what does it all have to do with painting and decorating?

Let’s use the story of my client’s color scheme. Her roof was green (actually a shade of green). The “off white” that she had originally chosen was a high value tint of blue. I had suggested the high value tone of red. Red is the complement of green (as it lays directly across from green on the wheel). Even though this red was well muted, it looked great in our color scheme and so the client liked it.

Turquoise is a color I had no definition for, until I visited Cancun, Mexico about twenty years ago. I had heard the color name but had no mental association for “turquoise” until I saw the Caribbean Sea. It was truly one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. This sea was like a shimmering jewel with its color blending gradually from the very saturated turquoise in the distance to almost colorless by the shore. But how would you describe “turquoise” to someone who does not have a mental association for it? Well, if this person had some knowledge of color basics, you could tell them that turquoise is a tint of blue-green.

This color definition of “turquoise” would also be very useful in application of the color wheel to decorating. Let’s say you had a beautiful painting with the scenery of the Caribbean Sea you wanted to showcase. You could paint the wall, the painting will be hanging on, a light tint of red-orange and watch the color of the sea in that painting really come alive. Again, this is because the red-orange is a complement to the blue-green.

In the above two examples we used the color scheme building formula which is based on the true complement colors, that is colors located directly across from each other on the color wheel. The true complement is only one of many color scheme building formulas but, perhaps, this can be a topic of another discussion. In this article, I wanted to clear up some of the color basics and to introduce the color wheel as a practical tool.

I hope this helps!

Also read Color Scheme Building.

Yefim Skomorovsky
Painting Contractor in San Francisco Bay Area

Call us today for your FREE painting estimate. You will be glad you did!

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