• Kathy

Which color wheel is in your toolbox?

Updated: Oct 9


How could I collect so many color wheels in just three years of coloring? Am I alone, or do you also have a collection of color wheels? Have you ever just looked at them and wondered, "why did I buy this one or that one, or how the heck am I supposed to use these"? For goodness sakes, they even look alike.


So to help clear up my own confusion I took a normal course of action for anyone to take in 2020. I Googled “color wheel”. Can you imagine my surprise when

Google returned “about 1,210,000,000 results in .47 seconds”.


Holy cats, no wonder I’m so confused about color wheels.


How the heck could there be that much information about this one little tool? When you start to dig down in the results you quickly realize that there are color wheels for quilters, for gardeners, for painters, for clothing, and the list goes on. No where can I find the answer to my search for “the right color wheel for copic and/or colored pencil colorers”. So does that mean I don’t really need one of these for coloring?


When I look at the images of color wheels, it’s clear they have beautiful colors from the rainbow. Some of these wheels are pure eye candy and others are actually full of useful information such as which colors are warm and which are cool (if only I knew how to use that information—that’s a story for another day). There is also information about tints, tones, shades—should I care about this? Clearly, otherwise why would it be here.


The next question is, are all these wheels really the same?

Nope. So let’s narrow this down to just two color wheels that artists might be using:


The RYB color wheel displays 12 colors; built around primary colors of red, yellow and blue.

The CMY color wheel displays 12 colors; built around primary colors of cyan, magenta and yellow.


I have both of these. Which one do I use? The CMY color wheel. Why, you ask? Because my most trusted coloring instructor said I should. Being the good student, who am I to argue? But it never felt right to me because I was taught in elementary school that primary colors are red, yellow and blue.


Until I bought ink for an inkjet printer in the early 90s I am not sure I ever knew there was a color named cyan. Since what I don’t know makes me nervous I haven’t been willing to give up my old RYB color wheel. Until now! Because it dawned on me that I’ve actually been using CMYK color mixes for computer designs for years. That is how I communicated my print jobs to the local commercial four-color printer. That realization of using what I know from the computer design to physically coloring took away any mystery I had around CMY color wheels. Even if you haven’t done commercial printing jobs, I bet you have CMYK experience too. If you are printing at home with an inkjet printer, it uses ink cartridges. What are the colors? CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). These colors, minus the black, are used to create thousands of colors. You know how inkjet ink and Copic ink are similar? They are both translucent and when layered will create a new color on paper. Better yet, I can apply that same logic to my thoughts about colored pencils too. Colored pencils don’t blend like ink, but when layered, they create new colors.


Oh, there is one more thing I wanted to share about the differences between these two color wheels, the complements are not the same! But since CMY inks blend consistently to create a prescribed color, I have much more confidence in the color information provided on the CMY wheel.


So now that I really embrace the use of my CMY color wheel for coloring, I can share with you when I use it.


  • Create a color palette for a project

  • To identify an accent color for a project

  • To find the color (complement) that will desaturate or neutralize my base color

  • To find the two colors (triad) that when combined with my base color will deepen or darken my base color

The color wheel is really a tool that I use as a shortcut to finding the colors I need for my project. It is more efficient than guessing which colors might do the job. Instead, I consult with the wheel and that heads me in the right direction from the start.



So if you don’t have a color wheel in your coloring toolbox, could you benefit by having one? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you want to color without color recipes?

  • Do you know how/what to substitute if you don’t have all the colors that were called for in a color recipe?

  • Do you ever want to change the colors from the project sample?

  • Do you know how to get a darker color from a Copic marker or colored pencil then what you have available in your supplies?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then I believe it would be a good tool for you to add to your toolbox.

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