Types of Colors

Updated November 2, 2021 | Infoplease Staff

Red, yellow and blue are the primary colors. Primary colors are the most basic colors. You can't make them by mixing any other colors. Orange, green and purple are the secondary colors. A secondary color is made by mixing two primary colors. For instance, if you mix red and yellow, you get orange.

Color Wheel


The Color Wheel

A color wheel shows how colors are related. On a color wheel, each secondary color is between the primary colors that are used to make it. Orange is between red and yellow because orange is made by mixing red with yellow. What goes between secondary colors and primary colors? Intermediate, or tertiary, colors are made by mixing a primary color with a secondary color that is next to it. Red-orange, yellow-orange and yellow-green are some intermediate colors.

TRY IT! Making a color wheel is a good way to understand how colors work. Start with red, yellow, and blue paint—the primary colors. Use these to make secondary colors. Then make tertiary colors by mixing primary colors with the nearest secondary colors. (For example, you might mix yellow with green to make yellow-green, or yellow with orange to make yellow-orange.)

Value: Tints and Shades

The lightness or darkness of a color is called its value.

You can find the values of a color by making its tints and shades.

Tints are light values that are made by mixing a color with white. For example, pink is a tint of red, and light blue is a tint of blue.

Shades are dark values that are made by mixing a color with black. Maroon is a shade of red, and navy is a shade of blue.


Color Values
Fields in a Rising Storm by Vincent Van Gogh


This painting by Vincent Van Gogh, Fields in a Rising Storm, has tints and shades of blue in the sky, and tints and shades of green in the fields.

TRY IT! Start with some paint in your favorite color. Mix it with different amounts of white to make tints, and different amounts of black to make shades. Then try creating a picture or a design that uses all these tints and shades.

Complementary Colors

Complementary (com-pluh-MEN-tuh-ree) colors sit opposite each other on the color wheel. Because they are opposites, they tend to look especially lively when used together. When you put complementary colors together, each color looks more noticeable.


Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent


Red and green are an example of complementary colors. Look at the painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent. The reddish-pink color of the flowers really stands out against the green background. Imagine if Sargent had painted all yellow or blue flowers instead. They would just blend in with the green (ho-hum).

TRY IT! Choose colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel. For example, you might choose blue and orange. Make a picture that uses both colors. Don't they make an interesting contrast? That's because the colors are opposites.

Analogous Colors

Analogous (uh-NAL-uh-gus) colors sit next to each other on the color wheel. They tend to look pleasant together because they are closely related.


Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh


Orange, yellow-orange, and yellow are an example of analogous colors. They are blended nicely in Sunflowers, a painting by Vincent Van Gogh. How do you know that these colors are closely related? They share a color—each of them contains some yellow.

TRY IT! Choose a primary color and a secondary color. For example, you might choose blue and green. Don't they look nice together? That's because they are analogous. With just these two colors, you can create even more analogous colors—blue-green, green-blue, and others in-between. All of these will have a color in common: blue.

Neutral Colors

Neutral (NOO-trul) colors don't usually show up on the color wheel. Neutral colors include black, white, gray, and sometimes brown and beige. They are sometimes called “earth tones.”


Circus by Georges Seurat


In Circus, Georges Seurat uses many different neutral colors. You can see a few glimpses of red, blue, and yellow in this painting. But the overall effect is of natural brown and gray colors, like those you might see in rocks or in sand, dirt, and clay.

TRY IT! There are a few different ways to make neutral colors. You can blend black and white to make gray. You can create brown in two ways—by blending two complementary colors together, or by blending all three primary colors together.

Warm Colors

Warm colors are made with red, orange, yellow, or some combination of these. Warm colors tend to make you think of sunlight and warmth.


The Fighting Temeraire by William Turner


In The Fighting Temeraire by William Turner, the warm colors of the sunset give a feeling of brightness and heat. Look at the red spreading from the setting sun and the deep golden glow on the water. If you're feeling cold, looking at colors like these can actually make you feel warmer!

Cool Colors

Cool colors are made with blue, green, purple, or some combination of these. Cool colors might make you think of cool and peaceful things, like winter skies and still ponds.


White Barn by Georgia O'Keeffe


In this painting by Georgia O'Keeffe, White Barn, the cool blue of the background contributes to the quiet feeling. The simple shapes and stillness of the barn give this painting a restful look, and the blue makes it feel even more peaceful. Imagine how different the painting would look with a bright red sky—it might seem more exciting than restful.

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