Back to Color Wheel


The objectives of this lesson are to

Help you choose the best set of colors for your color wheel.

Show how to lay out and make a color wheel for this class.

Show some variations on the basic design to encourage experimentation.




A color wheel is a diagram that shows the relationship between hues.

For this class you are asked to make a 12 hue color wheel with three primary colors that overlap three secondary colors to produce six tertiary colors. When this arrangement is correctly made, and the colors well chosen, the results look like the secondary colors are transparent and that the tertiary colors are made by looking through the secondary colors to the primary colors.

In order for this to happen the colors must be the correct hues and the composition designed to make the transparency illusion convincing.

This will be demonstrated in class.

Fluting is your best aid for choosing hues in the same way it was when choosing values.

Yellow is a very light hue. The secondary between yellow and either other primary (middle values) will not be half way in value. It will be closer to a middle value. The hue shift should be half way. Try to keep value and hue separate in your mind.




After painting and trimming the color chips put them in order just like when starting the value scale project.

If your set of colors is complete take the yellow through cyan chips out and set them aside. This is the easiest set of colors to choose because the secondary and tertiary chips are close to what you expect them to be.

Start by putting a green chip between the yellow and cyan chips. The green should not favor either primary color but seem half way in-between. You should see fluting at he edges of the green chip, just like you did with the value scale chips. This time the side against the cyan will look yellower and the side against the yellow will look more cyan. If the chip is half way between the two the fluting will seem equal on both edges. If not, try a different chip.

The tertiaries are chosen to be half way between the primaries and the secondaries in hue, but not value. The yellow green will be much darker than half way in value but should have equal fluting from each edge. The cyan green chip will be the same value as the cyan and that makes it more difficult to recognize. Again, look for equal hue fluting.

After choosing your greens, take the yellow through magenta chips and find the red that is half way between them. It will be redish orange, but definitely red. The yellow red (orange) will again be darker than half way in value, just like the yellow green. The magenta red will be the same value as the magenta so use fluting to make the choice

Now is when choosing your magenta and cyan primary colors to be the same value will pay off.

The value differences should be the same for both sets going from the very light yellow down though the tertiary, secondary and next tertiary to the middle value magenta and cyan primary chips. The largest value step will be the first one off of the yellow chip. Each step becomes smaller until the last two colors are the same value.

If the steps are different try substituting new chips until you have a symmetrical value progression.


The secondary between magenta and cyan is blue (a purplish blue, but still named blue). choose a color that seems to fit half way hue wise and check the fluting to see if it is correct. This will be the darkest color on the color wheel.

The cyan blue and magenta blue tertiaries will be noticeably darker than the primary colors. They should make the same hue and value steps away from the primary colors The blue secondary should fit comfortably between them and may need to be adjusted after choosing the tertiaries.


This is basic geometry. A protractor (a semicircle marked with degrees) or a 30/60 drafting triangle could also be used.



Using a compass and a ruler it is possible to divide a circle into six equal parts. This technique will provide the basic layout for our color wheel.

Start by drawing a circle in the center of a page, noting where the center of the circle is. Make the circle large enough to work comfortably with.

Mark a point along the circumference of the circle as a starting point.


Since there are 360 degrees in a circle, one sixth would be 60 degrees.

That would put the primary colors 120 degrees apart with the secondary colors half way between.


Put the point of the compass on that point and make a mark on either side of the circle using the same radius as the circle (do not change the compass setting).




Using a ruler draw a line from each of the three marks, through the center of the circle, to the far side of the circle This divides the circle into six equal parts.

These divisions will make the basic layout for your color wheel You will put the three primary colors over every other section, and secondary colors over the remaining sections.

The remaining instructions are for making the simplest version of this kind of color wheel.



Circles are used in this example because of the ease of laying out the color wheel. Almost any other kind of shape could be used.



With more complex shapes it is necessary to use a template to draw the pencil layout.



We will use circles for both the primary and secondary shape in this example. Other shapes can be used to make the design more interesting.

Draw three circles using alternate points as centers. The circles should be the same size and smaller than the original circle but large enough to overlap the secondary color shapes.

You can afford to make the primary colors fairly large since you can paint a large enough chip of these color easier than painting any other color.

Make a template of the primary color shape out of heavy paper. You will use the template to mark the primary color chips in order to cut them and to help mark the tertiary chips when the time comes to make them.


Sketch out a plan. After you decide on the two shapes (primary and secondary) make a template for each.

Mark the center line on the templates to aid in their placement.

Use the templates to draw an accurate layout plan as an aid to gluing the color wheel together.


Draw the secondary colors using the in-between points as centers.

The secondary circles (or what ever shapes) should be smaller than the primary color shapes so the viewer can distinguish one from the other. The shapes must be large enough to overlap the primary shapes in order to define the tertiary shapes.

Make a template of the secondary shape out of heavy paper.

The center shape(s) will be gray to indicate the neutral area in the center of the color wheel.




*Colors on a computer monitor are rarely accurate so do NOT try to duplicate what you see on the screen. Choose your own colors.


The finished color wheel should look something like this*.

The large primary colors are placed with yellow at the top. It does not matter which side the cyan and magenta chips go on.

The smaller secondary chips overlap the primary chips dictating the shapes of the tertiary chips.

The first step in making the color wheel is to cut out the shapes of the primary and secondary color chips. Use the templates you made earlier (or set the compass to the correct radius and use it to draw your circles).


*The primary and secondary chips will overlap and the tertiary chips will cover the shape of the overlap. With this in mind it is possible to use a chip that is smaller, or has less well painted edges, than the secondary template shape.

If you do not understand this use a large enough chip to make the entire secondary shape.


Use a light touch with the pencil since careless pencil marks will make the finished result look dirty. You can lay out the shapes on the back of the chips but be sure you are getting a well painted example across the entire chip*.

You will use your layout drawing as a guide to glue down the chips.

If you draw it in the right place on the correct page you will not have to move it after it is finished unless you want to put it on a black or gray background.

You could layout the design on gray or black paper in the first place.


Start by gluing a middle value gray chip over the center of the color wheel where the neutral area is. The chip can be almost any size that is large enough to cover the area and not protrude beyond the color chips.

You can use a leftover chip from the value scale, paint a new chip using black and white paint, or try making a gray using all three of your primary colors in the correct combination (good practice for the next project).

Click here for cutting and pasting tips.

Glue the primary color chips in place over the gray neutral chip. The slight difference in paper thickness should not be an issue.

This method for making the tertiary shapes is especially helpful when the primary and/or secondary shapes are more complex.


Glue the secondary colors onto their marks next. Be careful with placement since only part of the secondary color shapes' drawings will be visible under the primary shapes and the neutral chip.

Now comes the tricky part -- cutting the tertiary shapes to fit.

Put the primary color template over the tertiary chip and mark the edge lightly with a sharp pencil. Cut the shape along the mark.

The additional thickness of the layers of paper should not be a problem even if Bristol board is used for the chips.

Hold the cutout tertiary chip in place over the primary color chip.

Double check to see that you have the correct color and that it is the desired location. It is easy to get the tertiary colors mixed up.



Remember the wood workers adage: measure twice, cut once.


Put the secondary color template over the secondary color chip and mark the edge lightly with a sharp pencil. Remove the chip and carefully cut along the mark.

This will leave you with a tertiary chip that fits exactly. Glue the chip in place.

Continue the same process for the remaining tertiary colors.

The finished color wheel can then be cut out and mounted on any neutral colored (black, white or gray) background. If you laid it out carefully in the center of the correct page in your Design Book in the first place you are finished. Congratulations!


Any shapes can be used for the color wheel as long as the primaries are the most important, the secondaries next and the tertiaries least noticeable. You design the primary shapes and the secondary shapes. The tertiary shapes result from the primary and secondary shapes and how they overlap.

The sequence of colors must be correct. The illusion is that the colors are transparent and the tertiary colors are made by seeing through the secondary shapes to the primary shapes.

Here are some examples:



Back to Color Wheel

© 2001 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.