The Color Wheel

Color Theory Fundamentals: The Color Wheel

Many in the art world feel that color is the most subjective and powerful of all of the art and design principles. Colors are easily influenced by their surroundings, such as other colors and lighting, as well as by the perception of the human eye. For example, it is difficult to tell if you and I are seeing the hue of red or green based upon our own biology and what circumstances we might be viewing the hues under. Color can also trigger a powerful emotional response that other elements, such as line, shape, form, and texture, have difficulty matching. Color can be your most powerful aesthetic tool if you learn to consider it carefully and how it can effect perception and meaning, no matter which art medium you are exploring.

In this fundamentals posting we will explore:

  • The Color Wheel
  • Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors
  • Warm and Cool Colors

The Color Wheel

The color wheel or color circle is the basic tool for combining colors. The first circular color diagram was designed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666.

The color wheel is designed so that virtually any colors you pick from it will look good together. Over the years, many variations of the basic design have been made, but the most common version is a wheel of 12 colors based on the RYB* or standard light absorption/pigmentation color model.*

Traditionally, there are a number of color combinations that are considered especially pleasing. These are called color harmonies or color chords and they consist of two or more colors with a fixed relation in the color wheel.

*RYB is Color and Design shorthand for red, yellow, and blue.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors

In the RYB (or subtractive) color model, the primary colors are red, yellow and blue.

The three secondary colors (green, orange and purple) are created by mixing two primary colors.

Another six tertiary colors are created by mixing primary and secondary colors.

Warm and cool colors

The color wheel can be divided into warm and cool colors.

Warm colors are generally considered vivid and energetic, and tend to advance in space.

Cool colors usually give an impression of calm, and create a soothing impression.

White, black and gray are considered to be neutral.

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