How to use a colour wheel

A colour wheel is a visual guide to the entire spectrum of colours and is the favourite tool of interior designers. Use our all-you-need-to-know guide to decorate and design rooms that work

Know your contrasting and tonal from your harmonising and saturated by learning all there is to know about the colour wheel. It’s the key to a beautiful home that everyone will love

What is a colour wheel?

how to use a colour wheel

Image: Joanna Henderson

The colour wheel is made up of concentric circles with warm colours on one side and cooler colours on the other. It is split into segments of primary colours (red, yellow and blue) and secondary colours (orange, green and purple).

Tertiary colours can be made by combining a primary colour with a secondary colour next to it, for example, blue and green for turquoise.

Experiment with contrasting shades

how to use a colour wheel

Image: Little Greene

Contrasting colours are from opposite sides of the colour wheel and create bold and striking schemes.

Opposite colours, such as lime and raspberry, are vibrant and eye-catching and create a stunning modern look in a contemporary living room.

Use bolder contrasting shades rather than lighter versions, which aren’t as successful. Using equal amounts of colour can be overwhelming so pick a dominant shade and use the other for accessories.

Go tonal for subtlety

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Image: Sanderson

A tonal scheme uses darker and lighter hues from the same colour segment. A tonal approach can produce successful schemes that build layers of different shades.

This kitchen uses three tones of blue on walls, cupboards and floor, creating depth. Pops of green add interest.

Blue, with all its gradations, can work well on its own. Other colours, such as grey and brown need accents of mustard or turquoise or metallic highlights to lift them out of dullness. Avoid red, for instance, unless you want a saturated look.

Be brave with saturated colour

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Image: Farrow and Ball 

A saturated room scheme uses one single colour without any obvious variance in tone. These schemes are dramatic and moody.

This sultry kitchen features walls and units painted in matching black, but separates the blocks of darkness with pale worktops and toning tiles. Marble, glass and metal elements add hits of light.

A saturated scheme can carry the same colour across walls, woodwork, floor, ceiling and furnishings. Darker colours tend to be preferred as brights can be harder to live with.

Relax with harmonising tones

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Image: Christy

Harmonising colours sit side by side on the colour wheel. They produce pleasing, easy-to-live-with decorating schemes.

This quirky kitchen makes use of different paint effects in shades of two harmonious colours.

Harmonising colours are not as flamboyant as contrasting versions but convey more vibrancy and energy than tonal schemes. They can be faded into one another, producing ombre dip-dye effects in rich hues.

One design trick is to select one main colour and use the ones either side of it on the colour wheel as accents. For example, purple accessorised with blue and violet.

From the Good Homes Magazine editors.

Good Homes