painting color schemes

for artists

take the stress out of choosing your colors

  • Select your color schemes with confidence.
  • Artists love color. But there is such a bewildering array of beautiful colors.
  • We need a plan for controlling all the colors.

the secret to color

  • Red, yellow and blue are the primary colors and all other colors are derived from the primaries.
  • The secondary colors, orange, green and purple come from mixing the primaries, etc. etc.
  • The color wheel is our key to mastering color.

Master the art of selecting the Color Schemes for your paintings by artist Carol MaySelecting Your Color Schemes

master your color schemes with 1, 2, 3

#1 - you need a color wheel

  • You may find a color wheel from your local art store.
  • The best option is to paint a color wheel from the colors you use on your palette.
Paint a color wheel with your favorite paint colorsMy Color Wheel

#2 - make some color templates

Make yourself templates of the common color schemes used by painting artists.

These templates have served me for years commonly to select my painting colors.

Enlarged view of the color scheme templates

Color Scheme TemplatesColor Scheme Templates

#3 - choose your painting colors

first - choose the color of the main subject

If I was painting an orange, my main color would be orange.

Here my main subject was the turtle. I chose burnt sienna, a red-orange for his flippers.

second - choose a complimentary color

We need complimentary colors to mix the dark colors. The compliment of burnt sienna is the blue-green.

Complimentary plus a half right is one of my favorits painting color schemes by artist Carol MayCompliment + One Half Left

I needed a lighter color for the sunlight sides of the turtle. I moved half way left on the color wheel for new gamboge yellow.

  • I put each template over my color wheel until I find a template that suits the individual painting.
  • Then I clip the template to my color wheel.
  • I refer to it when I lay out my colors and while I am painting.
  • The color schemes keep me on track and give me beautiful paintings.

why limit the colors in each painting?

Limit the number of colors in each painting, so your paintings will have more cohesion and harmony. The viewers will find them pleasurable.

Normally I use only 3 or 4 colors for each painting. Additional colors are then mixed. When the additional colors are mixed from the original 3 or 4 colors, they always exhibit color harmony.

These have been my go-to color schemes for over twenty years, so I wanted to share them with you.

artist's color schemes

Place your color scheme templates on the color wheel and see all the possible beautiful color combinations.

Choose the color for your main subject first. Then you more than likely will need a compliment for the darks in your painting.

Let your artistic license run wild. Painting is fun!


One of my earliest painting lessons was to do a painting with one color.

The lesson was to teach us to see and use values in our paintings.

Monochromatic paintings are done with only one color.

White would give you various tints of the color.

The addition of black will create various shades of the original color.

This orangutan is basically orange, so this is the closest example from my paintings.

Monochromatic painting of a Baby OrangutanBaby Orangutan

complimentary colors

Compliments are any two colors directly across the color wheel from each other.

Complimentary colors can be used for high contrast paintings.

Complimentary colors are also used for mixing darks and other neutral colors.

In this painting I used the color yellow-green with its compliment red-violet.

I softened colors with white and got myself a lovely rose painting.

double compliment

Here I use the same two compliments as in the rose painting.

But to give the painting more variety, I added a color next to each compliment.

This gave me some brighter colors for the highlights by adding lemon yellow.

Adding dioxazine purple gave more depth to the darks.

split compliment

A split compliment color scheme uses the colors on each side of the direct compliment.

I chose orange with new gamboge and ultramarine blue as the complement.

The paint colors I use on my palette.

Blue and orange are compliments for making the darks to darken the feathers, his dark beak and eye. Yellow was used for the highlights on his chest.

compliment + one half right

Compliment plus a half left (the turtle painting, above) and compliment plus a right half are the two color schemes I most often use.

Complimentary colors are any two colors directly across from each other on the color wheel.

The addition of a complimentary cool color always adds zing to the painting.

It gives me dark colors for value contrast.


The triad painting color scheme uses three colors spaced equally around the color wheel.

A triad color scheme gives a balanced painting.

Turn the color scheme template and select any three equally spaced colors that suit your subject.

In this painting I used the primary colors, red, blue and yellow.

The greens and dark colors were easily mixed from these primary colors.

Using a triad of primary colors - art by Carol MayCardinal 'n' Dogwood


The semi-triad painting color scheme uses two primary colors with a secondary.

The primary colors are always ideal for mixing other colors.

If you use single pigment colors, the secondary colors are good for mixing, also.

Here I used blue, violet red and yellow green.

analogous colors

An analogous color scheme is made of three or more adjoining colors anywhere on the color wheel.

They may be either warm or cool colors or a combination.

Analogous colors have automatic color harmony because they are adjoining colors.

I did this sea shell painting from actual shells that I set up. Their natural colors were in perfect harmony.

Sea Shells painted with analogous colors by artist Carol MaySea Shells

now it is your turn -

Make your own color wheel and color scheme templates.

You will have many beautiful, successful paintings!

visit more color pages

The Color Wheel is the foundation of understanding color.

The Colors I Use On My Palette

How To Choose Your Painting Colors

How To Mix Your Paint Colors

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