How Tertiary Colors Fill in the Color Wheel & Your Home

Sure, you’re familiar with terms like color theory, the color wheel, and primary and secondary colors, but tertiary colors might sound a little foreign?

Tertiary Color Wheel

Defining Color

Primary colors — These are the three primary colors that we all know: red, blue and yellow.

Secondary colors — The three secondary colors are orange, green and purple. They’re a blend of primary colors: red + blue = purple, etc.

Tertiary colors — There are six tertiary colors. These are made by mixing one primary color and one secondary color. The names of these colors, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green…very creative.

In design, tertiary colors are often used as an accent to make the main color stand out. But tertiary colors can also take center stage. A prime example is the iconic blue-green cabinets in the kitchen on Friends!

To illustrate this rainbow of tertiary gorgeousness, we have some images of these colors on display.


While this space is just one to pass through, it’s hardly a forgotten one. The warm red-orange, something like PPG’s Clay Pot, set off by its secondary pal, mossy green, creates an inviting place to pause when traveling from one room to the next. Striking art gives the niche a focal point.


Photo: La Dolce Vita Blog

Glossy fuchsia walls (look to Wild Plum for a similar look) are anything but quiet in this library by Lindsey Coral Harper. With this one color, the Atlanta designer sets the traditionally quiet space on its ear.


Photo: Sketch 42 Blog

Kelly Wearstler, known for her bold take on color, uses a saturated blue-violet in this plush Tribeca bedroom. While it seems like the near-psychedelic hue would be a jarring choice for a sleeping space, a watery green wall anchors the scheme.

Photo: Pinterest

Cheap and cheerful are the watchwords in this happy farmhouse kitchen. Blue-green walls, a lime-green ceiling and a collection of fire-engine-red kitchenware make you want to throw on some Pink Martini and start cooking. For a similar shade, look to Aqua Blue.

Photo: House Beautiful

Design powerhouse Miles Redd captures the vivacious essence of lime green in this tiny Manhattan kitchen. As he says, “The strong brush of color makes it exciting.” A color like Leap Frog can add some zest to your kitchen.


Photo: Little Augury

Michael Taylor, one of the seminal designers of the 1970s and ‘80s, helped define California style. This classic San Francisco living room (with curvaceous Syrie Maugham sofas, by the way) captures the designer’s quintessential style and the city’s sunny disposition.

Like all colors, tertiary hues tap into our emotions. In 1810, philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (you probably know him as the author of Faust) published Theory of Colors, which presented his ideas about how color affected feeling.

He saw tertiary colors as combining the emotions of the primary and secondary ones, much the way the colors combined themselves. Here’s Goethe’s notion about red-blue:

“Blue deepens very mildly into red, and thus acquires a somewhat active character, although it is on the passive side. Its exciting power is, however, of a different kind from that of the red-yellow. It may be said to disturb, rather than enliven.”

And then on blue-red:

“This unquiet feeling increases as the hue progresses, and it may be safely assumed, that a carpet of a perfectly pure deep blue-red would be intolerable. On this account, when it is used for dress, ribbons, or other ornaments, it is employed in a very attenuated and light state, and thus displays its character as above defined, in a peculiarly attractive manner.”

You can see how dialing the wheel one way or the other impact, not just a room, but your feelings, too.

So when you’re thinking of a new color scheme, ask yourself how each color makes you feel. Let your eyes — and your heart — be your guide. And if you get stuck, Paintzen is always here to help you choose your color.