Color Wheel 101

What the heck is a color wheel and what does it mean to my living room?  It's a critical design element, an interior designer will never leave home without it.  It’s the primary tool for choosing what color to use and what color to use with that color.  And yes, it is literally a wheel of color divided into 12 sections according to its pigment value and it's made up of three different color types.


Dividing the wheel in to three equal parts are the primary colors, which are colors that cannot be made by mixing other colors.  They are red, blue and yellow.


Secondary colors are created by mixing primary colors. They are: 

  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Violet



Tertiary colors are colors created by adding equal amounts of one primary and one secondary color, or the colors to either side on the wheel, they are:

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

Warm, Cold and Neutral Colors

You’ll often hear colors referred to as warm colors, or cool or cold colors.  If you divide the color wheel in half, the colors on the left are considered warm, because they tend to represent and make you think of the color of fire.  Warm colors not only make a room feel cozy, they can make a room look smaller, as they tend to ‘advance’ and feel closer.

The right side of the wheel are cool colors, Blue, green, and violet are considered cool colors. They have receding characteristics, meaning they can make a room look larger.

It seems clear, but when you start mixing up color, then add lighting to the mix, it clouds the issue.  If you compare different reds, yellows or blues, you'll see that there are warm and cool versions of each of these colors.  Just remember that you can make any color warmer by increasing the amount of yellow in it. You can make any color cooler by increasing the amount of blue in it. 

Neutrals are much easier to understand if the warm and cool color theory is a bit much.  Neutrals are colors that blend or combine with all other colors to change their value (the warm or cool issue again) or intensity. Black, white, brown and gray and their different shades are considered neutral colors.

So how the heck do you know if a paint color or a fabric will warm up a room or cool it down?    You’ll learn to recognize cool and warm mixes with experience.  Sometimes, the names of the color will help identify it.  In the meantime, just identify it by how it makes you feel, as that is what counts when using color in interior decorating.