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Basic Color Theory (An Introduction to the Color Wheel)

7 min

Have you ever wondered why certain combinations of colors look better together than others? We can break this relationship down scientifically. Here is an introduction to the Color Wheel and how we can use it for fashion.

One of the most significant aspects of what we wear as men are the color combinations of our outfits and how each piece interacts with the other. Unlike the fit of our clothes (the most critical component of style), understanding colors is much more nuanced. This article is designed to walk you through the basics of understanding the importance of color theory related to style.

Consider this article the "crawl" phase (we will worry about walking and running in the future). When wrapping our heads around the subject of colors, it all starts with the fundamental color wheel.


This tool was initiated in the 17th century by Sir Issac Newton. Initially developed for science and studying the refraction of light beams, the orientation of this wheel found its way as a mainstay in areas of design, art, and fashion.

Let's begin by breaking down the various portions of the wheel itself.


Primary colors are considered the basis from which all other colors originate. All additional colors that we know of are mixed from primary colors, and as you might expect, this also means that we cannot mix any other colors to form any of the three primary colors.


Secondary colors are formed by mixing two primary colors. So, for example, yellow and blue combine to create green. On the color wheel, secondary colors lie between the primary colors.


Tertiary colors fill in the rest of the wheel and are created by mixing a primary color with a secondary color. This is where we get all those lovely colors that resemble primary and secondary colors. For example, red combined with purple makes magenta.

We have showcased the color wheel as having twelve distinct colors until this point. It is important to note that this oversimplifies all possible colors we can make. In reality, the wheel looks more like this:


You probably noticed that black and white are not a part of the color wheel, and this is because the two are not technically colors. Instead, they exist on a different scale called the grayscale because many shades and tints can be created by mixing various quantities of black and white (more on this later).

Photo from Shutterstock


Sticking with our twelve colors on the color wheel, let's cover a few more terms that are pretty important to understand. We should be aware of the four essential qualities of colors on our color wheel.


Hue can be a lot more confusing than it is; it is just color in and of itself. We see twelve hues if we look at our standard twelve-color wheel (depicted below).

Twelve Colors = Twelve Hues

And even if we were to look at the more complex version of this same wheel (see below) and pick a random, single color from it, then whatever that color is would also be its hue.

Lots of Hues...

Don't overthink it; hue is whatever specific color exists on our color wheel spectrum. For example, the hue of the color blue is just blue; the hue of the color magenta is just magenta.  


When white is added to any color, it becomes a tint of that color, resulting in a less intense and lighter hue.

By the same token, if we add black to any color, we produce a shade of that color, resulting in a darker and less intense hue.

This relative lightness and darkness are referred to as a color's value. It would be a tone if we were to add a mixture of gray to any color.


We mentioned the term intensity a few times before; tints, shades, and tones are less intense than their proper color hues. Again, hues are referred to as "true colors" on the color wheel, and black and white do not reside on the color wheel and therefore must be added separately to make tints, shades, and tones.

This general intensity level is known as a color's saturation. If the color is dull and grayed out, then it is desaturated. Conversely, it is more saturated if the color is more substantial and brighter.


Color temperature refers to its apparent warmth. Looking back at our three primary colors, red and yellow are considered warm colors, whereas blue is regarded as a cool color. Each color's respective warmth changes as we move around the color wheel.

For example, a warmer red would exhibit more yellow while a cooler red exhibits more blue (see below):

The results can vary when we mix warm and cool colors. For example, green is considered a cool color (a combination of blue and yellow), while purple is regarded as a warm color (a combination of red and blue).

What's important is that, much like the above examples, all colors can be warmer or cooler depending on how much red, yellow, or blue they contain. So long as you remember that red and yellow are warm and blue is cool in temperature, everything else will fall into place.


When we combine hue, value, saturation, and temperature, our results are many possible color combinations concerning our standard twelve-color wheel. The result looks like this:


Okay, so we've introduced the color wheel and explained how it serves as a tool for dressing well. With all of that out of the way, let's showcase how we utilize this tool to create color combinations that work well together. To do this, we will need to introduce a few more terms, but they all make sense concerning the wheel itself.


This straightforward palette option takes a single color from the color wheel and applies tints, shades, and tones to create different options.

Selecting only Orange from the color wheel


Complementary colors sit directly across from one another on the color wheel and feature the most amount of contrast due to their distance away from one another. These colors look great when paired together and work well to provide balance when assembling different outfits.


Similar to complementary colors, this palette starts with a single color from the wheel and its two direct correlative colors of that single color's complement. For example, red-orange and yellow-orange are the split complementaries of the primary color blue (see below).

Vermillion (Red-orange) & Amber (Yellow-orange) are the Split-Complementaries of Blue

Split-complementary colors allow for the same level of contrast as complementary colors but provide more variety.

A fun fact is that to create varying tones of brown, we would need to mix two complementary colors or three split-complementary colors together.


One of the more handsome palettes to choose from is the analogous color combination; two to four colors on the wheel sit next to each other. One of the best ways to utilize this palette for style is to select a single dominant color and use the additional ones as accents. This is an intelligent way to create a lot of cohesion in your outfits.  


This information is only the beginning. The concept of color becomes increasingly important when we talk about dressing for our skin tone and the relationship between colors and different patterns.

All of this should mean something to us when determining and maintaining our personal style; we ought to be intentional when choosing what to wear.


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