Choosing a Color Scheme From the Color Wheel

Color Schemes 101

The Spruce / Ellen Lindner

Creating a color scheme can seem daunting when you are faced with thousands of colors on swatches, photos, and stores. However, understanding the basics of color theory can help you to create color schemes. You can learn how to quickly and easily create your color schemes, by learning a few simple color concepts.

Color Schemes vs. Palettes

The phrases "color scheme" and "color palette" seem to be used interchangeably, but they're different.

  • A color scheme is used to describe the framework of how the colors are chosen and put together. A color scheme is based on color theory, like a monochromatic scheme.
  • A color palette refers to the actual colors that you’ve chosen, based on your color scheme. So if you chose a complementary color scheme, the color palette would include colors by name or by paint color. It’s more specific to your project.

Once you learn a few basic color scheme techniques, you can choose a color that expresses your taste and vision.

If you want to dive into creating color schemes easily, then a small, inexpensive color wheel is going to be your best ally. Look for a color wheel that shows color relationships on the back. Being able to reference how the colors relate to one another makes choosing color simpler.

Types of Color Schemes

You don’t need an extensive color education to create a gorgeous color scheme, but you will need to know about color relationships. Creating a color scheme that is based on color relationships is going to feel and look more harmonious than a scheme created without planning.

  • Monochromatic Color Scheme: This is a color scheme of only one color. By using variations of lightness and saturation, you can easily create a stylish scheme that looks professionally designed. Neutral colors are an elegant choice for monochromatic color schemes.
  • Complementary Color Scheme: This is a color scheme with two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. This color scheme can be vibrant with high contrast if colors are used in the same saturation. This scheme will naturally include a warm and a cool color, as they're on opposite sides of the wheel.
  • Analogous Color Scheme: This is a scheme using three colors that are adjacent to each other. An analogous scheme can be very harmonious and relaxing. A scheme of blue-green, green, and green-yellow is an example of an analogous color scheme. This scheme benefits from having one dominant color with the two remaining colors as accents. Analogous schemes work well with accent walls and other large-scale accents because the colors are naturally harmonious together.
  • Triad Color Scheme: This is a scheme with three colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. A triad color scheme could include green, violet, and orange, so care must be taken with the saturation of the colors you choose. This is another scheme that benefits from choosing one color to dominate, with the other two as accents.
  • Split-Complementary: This is a color scheme that uses three colors. One color is chosen first and then the colors on either side of its complementary color ​are included. Less dramatic than the complementary color scheme, the split-complementary is an easy color scheme to create and live with.
  • Tetradic Color Scheme: This is a scheme using two sets of complementary colors. Having four colors to work with can be more challenging, but it can also produce a full and rich color scheme. Using a dominant color with three accent colors is one way to harmonize a tetradic color scheme. The other way to create a pleasant tetradic scheme is to use muted tones of the four colors. Any complementary scheme will contain warm and cool colors and requires special care balancing the two.

If you find a color wheel that illustrates color relationships, you can easily experiment with all of these color schemes to find the perfect one. Once your color scheme is decided, the fun begins as you create a palette of your desired colors.