Skip to Content

What is a creative color wheel?

Color wheels are visual representations of color relationships that help designers and artists combine hues in pleasing and purposeful ways. Creative color wheels build on the basics to showcase more complex color interactions and provide specialized guidance for different projects.

The basics of color wheels

Most basic color wheels demonstrate the primary, secondary, and tertiary hues of the additive RGB (red, green, blue) and subtractive CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow) color models. These include:

  • Primary colors: Red, yellow, and blue for RGB; cyan, magenta, and yellow for CMY
  • Secondary colors: Green, orange, and purple/violet; created by mixing two primary colors
  • Tertiary colors: Intermediate hues made by mixing a primary and secondary color, like red-orange or yellow-green

The most common color wheel design is a 12-part wheel with the three primary hues equally spaced around the circle, and the secondaries, tertiaries, and complementary colors filling in the gaps.

Primary Red Yellow Blue
Secondary Orange Green Purple
Tertiary Red-orange Yellow-green Blue-violet

These basic color wheels already provide valuable information about color relationships:

  • Complementary colors lie opposite each other on the wheel, like red and green or yellow and purple.
  • Analogous colors sit next to each other, like blue, blue-violet, and purple.
  • Triadic colors are evenly spaced around the wheel, like red, yellow, and blue.

Artists use these simple principles to select color schemes for aesthetically pleasing works.

Creative variations

While the 12-part color wheel provides essential color theory foundation, creative wheels build on these basics in innovative ways. Some variations include:

Color wheels based on human vision

Perceptual color wheels aim to represent how humans actually see color. Rather than evenly spacing the hues, these wheels adjust saturation and value to account for the idiosyncrasies of human vision, like the way we perceive brighter distinctions between some hues than others. Two examples are the Natural Color System and Munsell Color System.

Wheels showing relationships between different color models

Some color wheels illustrate connections between different color modes, like RGB, CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), HSL (hue, saturation, lightness), and more. These wheels can help designers convert colors between models for digital, print, and other applications.

Wheels customized for color harmonies

Many creative wheels go beyond basics to recommend custom color palettes. Color harmony wheels highlight sets of colors that work well together, like monochromatic, complementary, split complementary, triadic, rectangular, and more.

Color Harmony Description
Monochromatic Shades, tones, and tints of a single hue
Complementary A color and its complement
Split Complementary A color plus the two hues adjacent to its complement

Wheels for specific color properties

Some creative wheels isolate and map particular color qualities like temperature, tone, shade, saturation, luminance, and more. For example, a color temperature wheel groups hues from warmest to coolest.

Industry-specific wheels

Specialized color wheels cater to needs of specific fields. There are color wheels for art, interior design, landscape design, fashion, marketing, photography, and more. These wheels highlight palettes and relationships tailored to that industry.

Benefits of creative color wheels

Why use a more complex color wheel instead of a basic 12-part version? Creative wheels offer many benefits:

  • Show more accurate color relationships based on human vision
  • Illustrate connections between different color modes
  • Provide color palette inspiration
  • Offer industry-specific guidance
  • Isolate specific color qualities like temperature or shade
  • Move beyond basics to advanced color theory

With their targeted guidance and inspiring visuals, creative color wheels make color selection more intuitive for all types of projects.

Tips for using creative color wheels

Here are some tips for getting the most out of creative color wheels:

  • Choose a wheel suited to your project – industry, goal, color qualities needed
  • Use the wheel as inspiration, not a rulebook – you can always customize palettes
  • Try out palette options through test designs before finalizing colors
  • Refer back to basics like RGB if needed to understand a wheel’s layout
  • Look for wheels that let you visualize palette options together

Creative color wheel examples

Here are a few examples of inventive color wheels that move beyond the basics:

Interior design: Maria Killam Color Wheel

This specialized wheel highlights 150 paint colors for home interiors. The fan-style layout groups hues from neutrals to bolds, breaking the wheel formation to better represent interior palettes.

Art: Itten’s Color Star

Johannes Itten’s color star helps artists mix colors by showing relationships between 12 hues of the color wheel and complementary shades, tints, and tones.

Nature: Küppers Color Chart

Küppers assigns vivid colors to plants, minerals, animals, and microbes based on color perception and symbolism, not scientific accuracy. This unusual wheel connects color to the natural world.

Human Vision: Munsell Color System

The Munsell wheel maps colors perceptually by tweaking distances between hues to match human vision. It also defines precise coordinates for color based on hue, chroma, and value.

Choosing your creative color wheel

With so many options, choosing the right creative color wheel for your needs takes some consideration:

  • What is your field? Options catered to your industry will be most useful.
  • What qualities are most important? Temperature? Tone? Harmonies? Choose a wheel highlighting those.
  • How will you use the wheel? For inspiration? As a mixing guide? To problem-solve issues?
  • Is accuracy important? Some wheels focus on human perception over exact hue representation.
  • Do you need a physical or digital wheel? Printed or screen-viewable?

Even within your industry, there are likely multiple wheel styles to explore. Test out a few options before settling on your creative color wheel companion.


While the basic color wheel provides essential foundations, creative variations expand on these principles in insightful ways. Specialized wheels designed for different mediums, industries, and color qualities can inform your work with custom color guidance and inspiration. Exploring beyond the fundamentals opens up new realms of possibility and allows you to curate palettes perfectly suited to your project goals.