how to use the rear of the colour wheel


Welcome to this month’s Oil Painting Blog for Beginners. *

Many thanks again to ‘The Color Wheel Company who have very kindly granted us permission to use the front and rear images of their colour wheel which are perfect for this three-part oil painting blog:-

In this issue we will be dealing with Part 2 – How to use the rear of the Colour Wheel. In very simplistic terms, the rear of the Colour Wheel is a great high-level guide to colour relationships and colour schemes.

Let’s get started: –

How To Use The Rear Of The Colour Wheel

As, previously mentioned above and in Part 1, we will be using the ‘Color Wheel’, which can be purchased from most good art stores and comes in three sizes as follows:

the colour wheel company

Here at the downstairs studio, we use the 9 ¼” diameter Colour Wheel and most of the students carry the pocket Colour Wheel in their oil painting kit.

We also use our own colour wheels, which we have included as a free download on this link:-

the colour wheel

The Rear of the Colour Wheel

The rear of the ‘Color Wheel’ is illustrated as follows with the primary, secondary and tertiary colours being the first outer band/layer.

the rear of the colour wheel

There are a total of 12 colours shown. However, in the above illustration, two colours [Red – Orange] and [Blue-Green] are hidden under the rotating/movable outer dial note section and can be seen in the illustration below: –

the rear of the colour wheel dials

The Front of the Colour Wheel – Recap

For those who haven’t yet read Part 1 – HOW TO USE THE COLOUR WHEEL – THE FRONT, here’s a quick recap on the primary, secondary and tertiary colours and how they are made: –

primary secondary tertiary colours

So looking at the rear of the colour wheel, the next three bands indicate the possible TINT, TONE and SHADE for each of the 12 colours located on the outer most ring as follows: –

tint tone and shade on the colour wheel

Tints, Tones and Shades

The tints, tones and shades illustrated on the ‘Color Wheel’ are indicative only.

Depending on the actual colour you are using these may likely differ as follows when white (tint), grey (tone) or black (shade) are added.

red tints tones and shades

For this example, I am using Winsor & Newton, three reds and Titanium White, Davy’s Grey and Ivory Black and when mixed and compared to the red on the ‘Color Wheel’ you will see that depending which red you use there is a marked variation in the colours between those mixed below and those shown on the ‘Color Wheel’ red segment above:-

cadmium red tints tones shade

Colour Schemes

Finally, the rear of the Color Wheel deals with the following colour schemes: –

rear colour wheel colour schemes

Monocromatic Colour Scheme

The first of these colour schemes is MONOCROMATIC, which is using just one colour and its tints, tones and shades.

For the complete beginner, anyone who has trouble with value (working with light and dark) or has become too tight or rigid in their painting this is a brilliant way to master colour and free the creative spirit, especially as you only have one colour to concentrate on.

Here at the studio, we start each student on just black and white. I love working in black and white, or a single transparent colour [a colour you can see through] such as phthalo blue, alizarin crimson or burnt sienna.

monochromatic colour schemes

Analogous Colour Scheme

Our next colour scheme is ANALOGOUS, which is painting with colours located beside each other on the colour wheel.

Possible colour schemes / plans could include working with the warm side of the colour wheel and selecting from Red-Violet, Red, Red-Orange, Orange, Yellow-Orange and Yellow or choosing side by side colour combinations from the cool side of the colour wheel including Violet, Blue-Violet, Blue, Blue-Green, Green and Yellow-Green. Further examples are included in the image below:

colour schemes analogous

This colour scheme creates calm and harmonious paintings and was generally favoured by the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet.

paintings using analogous colour schemes

Complementary Colour Scheme

Our third colour scheme is COMPLEMENTARY, which is selecting two colours directly opposite each other on the colour wheel.

This is a colour scheme I use a lot, particularly when painting seascapes with the complementary colours BLUE and ORANGE. Possible Blue and Orange variations include: –

  • BLUE – Prussian Blue, French Ultramarine Blue and Cerulean Blue


  • ORANGE – Burnt Sienna, Raw Sienna, Burnt Umber and Raw Umber

As a rule of thumb, you generally have one colour at a weaker strength to the other colour so that the other colour pops and can steal the show and take the limelight.

complementary colour schemes using rear of colour wheel

To learn more about this colour scheme I suggest that you study the paintings of the Post Impressionists including Vincent Van Gogh, who was an absolute master at using this colour scheme. Below are a few of his paintings using the RED and GREEN complementary colour scheme: –

complementary colour scheme used by Van Gogh

Split Complementary Colour Scheme

The Split Complementary colour scheme is a little different to the complementary colour scheme in that it works with three colours, two of which are located side by side to the colours complement colour. While a little more complex, this colour scheme is a lot more interesting given that it is working with the tertiary colours which are the warm and cool version of the complement colour. A sort of temperature control dial!

split complementary colours

As a point of interest, if the main colour is a primary, YELLOW, RED OR BLUE, then the split complement will always be two tertiary colours for example: –

yellow red blue complementary colours

Similarly, if the main colour is a tertiary colour the opposite split complement will always be one primary and one secondary colour.

To learn more about split complement colour schemes why not check out artworks by the artist Edvard Munch particularly, the Sick Child (1925) and the Yellow Log (1912) and study artworks akin to the following by Claude Monet, which is painted with the tertiary BLUE – GREEN, and a muted dull / desaturated primary RED and a pop of bright warm secondary ORANGE.

split complement colours Monet painting

Triad Colour Scheme

The Triad colour scheme is a lovely colour scheme to try, which is working with three colours that are equidistant / spaced on the colour wheel. So, if the main colour is a: –

  • PRIMARY then the other two colours will also be primaries.
  • SECONDARY then the other two colours will also be secondaries.
  • TERTIARY then the other two colours will also be tertiaries.
triad colour scheme

Artist’s who worked with the Triad Colour Scheme as follows: –

  • PRIMARY COLOURS include Mondrian, Lichenstein, Matisse and Chagall.
  • SECONDARY COLOURS include Monet, Cezanne and Bonnard.
  • TERTIARY COLOURS include Van Gogh.
colour scheme triad

Tetrad Colour Scheme

The final colour scheme is the TETRAD, which uses four colours, usually a combination of a double complement, for example: –

  • Green + Red and Blue + Orange or
  • Yellow-Orange + Blue- Violet and Blue-Green + Red-Orange.
Tetrad colour scheme

A good example of a Tetrad Colour Scheme is Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, the Café Terrace at Night (1888) which uses Blue-Violet, Red-Orange, Blue-Green and Yellow-Orange.

Van Gogh - Tetrad colour scheme

One of my favourite art movements the Fauvists, were also brilliant at using this colour scheme to create really bright, vibrant paintings.

Tetrad four colours on the colour wheel

For more on colour schemes check out our previous blog 5 top tips to radically change your painting style and our blogs on impressionism, post impressionism and fauvism.

Alternatively, if you would like to learn to paint in the style of Monet, the Fauvists or Van Gogh including his painting – the Café Terrace at Night why not check out, book and join us in the studio for one of our oil painting workshops.

For those who’d like a handy guide for reference and to keep in your art folder/kit bag, you can download a printable copy of our Handy Guide To Using The Rear Of The Colour Wheel. After printing, we recommend laminating to protect it from spills and splashes.


Until next month, when we will continue our oil painting journey.

Wishing you nothing but the very best of wishes and a great Summer!

* As always, I am not affiliated with any brands, stores, or persons I may or may not mention and your use of any of these products, links and the like are your own risk and it’s up to you to do your research/homework before you use them. This is just my opinion and experience.

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