ask the experts6 min read

Color theory: the color wheel explained

3 different colour wheels

WordsMegan Lambert


To understand the color wheel is to get to grips with the science behind color theory. Why are some pairings a color match made in heaven and why others scream, “What the hell were hue thinking”? Did you know that the same Isaac Newton who discovered gravity also invented the color wheel? That’s why we’ll be explaining the color wheel according to science and sharing this foolproof method to finding your perfect paint color.

Introducing: the color wheel

Colour wheel diagram explaining tint, tone and hue

A simple color wheel is made up of 12 colours, a combination of the three primary colours: red, blue, and yellow. The three primary colors are essentially the parents of the remaining nine on the color wheel. Now, let's talk about mixers. Sadly not an accompaniment to your favourite tipple, but hues, tints, tones, and shades. The make-up of the color wheel. 

Hue: another term for color. The pure color.

Tint: the pure color, mixed with white. 

Tone: the pure color, mixed with gray.

Shade: the pure color, mixed with black. 

Warm and cool colors: a tale of two halves

Simply put, the color wheel splits into two halves: warm and cool. These are pretty intuitive. Warm colors are bold, vivid, and tend to appear larger or take up space, whilst cool colors are soothing and create an impression of calm and don't overpower. Conversely, white, black, and gray are considered to be neutralizing.

What lies beneath: undertones

The dominant colour, the one you perceive it to be, is called the overtone – although sometimes people disagree on this (that dress was blue!). The color you don't see is the undertone, but they can make all the difference between a warm or a cool color. For example, gray, green, blue, and purple are all cool undertones (calming colors), whilst orange, yellow, red, and pink are warm undertones (energising colors). All of our paints have a range of undertones and you should consider these when picking the right palette for your room.

Room direction: a brief orientation

One of the trickiest decisions is not just what color to choose but what color is right for it based on how much light it gets. We use spaces at different times and for different things. Not only does this affect the light but also how the color will appear. If you’re not sure what orientation your room is, read our guide on how to tell if your room is north, east, south or west-facing

With less natural light than their counterparts, north-facing rooms tend to be darker and can bring out the cooler undertones of a colour, whilst south-facing rooms enjoy generous lighting throughout the day. For the former, when it comes to your color options, it’s best to opt for a lighter palette with warm red or yellow undertones, like our White 03, Beige 01 or light Pink 01, whereas when it comes to south-facing rooms, these are the ones to experiment in. You get a good amount of light throughout the day, so go wild!

On the other hand, east-facing rooms get lots of gorgeous sunrise light, whilst west-facing rooms see the sunset. A pale Blue 02 would balance out the golden morning light of an east-facing bedroom, whilst a warming Pink 01 or neutralizing Green 01 would work well in an east-facing living room, which will have less light in the hours you’re using it. The opposite is true for a west-facing living room or bedroom. Opt for warmer colors for rooms you’ll use in the morning, like Yellow 01, Green 01, or Beige 01 and cooler colors for rooms that will see that sunset, like White 01. We could go on about this all day. Take a read of our blog on room orientations for a deep dive into which colors to go choose.

The fun part. Let's talk color schemes.

So you've decided what color(s) you're going with – sort of – or least settled on which room to start. Now it's time to talk about color schemes. There are four basic color schemes: monochrome, complementary, analogous, and achromatic. Which one you pick depends on whether you're going for a harmonious feel or want to make a statement.

Monochromatic color schemes

Often mistakenly referred to as black and white, monochrome actually comes from the Greek' mono' meaning one and 'khroma' meaning color. A monochromatic scheme means using one colour (for example, blue) in varying tones, tints and shades. The effect? A harmonious, visually cohesive look. For some gorgeous monochrome interior inspo, or just to understand the concept better, read our guide on understanding monochromatic color schemes.

Blue colour palette in Lick paint in Blue 02, Blue 04, Blue 10, Blue 111

Complementary color schemes

On the other side of the color wheel, you've got complementary color schemes. These involve picking complementary colors from, well, the opposite side of the color wheel— e.g. pairing pinks with greens and oranges with blues. The result is one that really pops. That said, if you opt for more neutralised shades or tones, you can still create a complementary color scheme without the palettes being quite so overpowering. It’s one to consider if you're trying to make a feature of cornicing or woodwork in your home. Read more about dado rails and picture rail ideas here.