Nov 03 2008
A Tonal Color Wheel is a very handy thing to have, especially if you learn to use it to help you create harmonious color compositions. James Gurney, a painter and illustrator, has invented a system using a tonal color wheel with “masks” or templates that help the artist define a harmonious color scheme.
Above is a color wheel created by my student, Michelle Hess. She did especially well with defining the graduated steps of gray, moving from the pure hues on the outside of the circle towards the gray at the center (ideally, however, there should be more differentiation between tones within the yellow-orange to red sections).
To create a wheel similar to the one above, use a compass and protractor to create a 10-12 inch circle, divided by 12 sections for the Primaries, Secondaries, and Intermediate Colors.
In acrylic or oil paints, the truest primary colors will be cadmium red, cadmium yellow, and ultramarine blue. In an ideal world where chemical components of the colors are not an issue, you should be able to mix these colors to create your secondaries. If you do this however, you will likely get a very muddy purple and green. For best results, you should have a tube of Dioxozine or Cobalt Violet, as well as Permanent Green (and, optionally, Cadmium Orange, though your mixture of Cad Red and Cad Yellow should be fine).
You will begin by painting the pure hues on the outside of the circle, gradually adding a mixed gray to each interior section. For best results, try squinting through a gray scale to determine the correct amount of gray to add to each step.
Once you have completed your wheel, you can create masks that you can lay over parts of the color wheel to help you define tonal ranges for specific color schemes.
To create your templates, I suggest using a thick card-stock paper. (I prefer bristol board). Cut the template to a size a little larger than your color wheel. The above example uses a triangle cut whose height is that of half of the wheel. Notice that the base of the triangle rests above the center of the circle and it’s apex is at the outer edge. Laying this mask over the color wheel, one can determine a “monochromatic triad” which includes the “dominant color” at the apex, and secondary tones towards the edge.
The mask for a complimentary scheme would span the diameter of the circle so that the pure hues from both sides will be revealed, along with the gray tones between the two. Another way to use compliments is to create a scheme that is primarily in a monochromatic family of a dominant hue, with a smaller number of “accents” from the opposite side of the wheel.
The above are just some of the examples of types of color schemes. James Gurney mentions that “There’s no limit to the kinds of masks you can cut, and then the infinite combinations you can generate when you start rotating a mask above your own wheel.”
Other Color Theory Articles within this blog:
To gain an in-depth understanding about color wheel masking, visit James Gurney’s blog at