The Color Wheel: History and Explanation

>The Color Wheel: History and Explanation

The Color Wheel: History and Explanation

A color wheel or color circle is an abstract illustrative organization of color hues around a circle that shows relationships between primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors etc.

As an illustrative model, artists typically use red, yellow, and blue primaries (RYB color model) arranged at three equally spaced points around their color wheel. Printers and others who use modern subtractive color methods and terminology use magenta, yellow, and cyan as subtractive primaries. Intermediate and interior points of color wheels and circles represent color mixtures. In a paint or subtractive color wheel, the “center of gravity” is usually (but not always) black, representing all colors of light being absorbed; in a color circle, on the other hand, the center is white or gray, indicating a mixture of different wavelengths of light (all wavelengths, or two complementary colors, for example).

The arrangement of colors around the color circle is often considered to be in correspondence with the wavelengths of light, as opposed to hues, in accord with the original color circle of Isaac Newton.

1708 color wheelIn Fact, the original color wheel was created by Sir Isaac Newton, in 1666. His focus on the nature of light and color, and experimentation slitting sunlight with a prism lead to his color circle. Newton’s first color circle was actually more of a pie chart, in which the bands of color he observed were dispersed in wedges, arranged around a circle. The prism produced red, blue, yellow, green and cyan. This allowed him to show the natural sequence of color by joining the two ends and creating the color wheel.

Wilhelm von Bezold's 1874 Farbentafel color wheelBy the mid 1900’s, a German theorist, Johannes Itten, developed the color wheel we know today. He took into consideration Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s hypothesis of the emotional value of colors, such as blue was associated with coolness and red was associated with warmth. His color wheel was based on the primary colors and contains 12 colors.

Colors of the color wheel

The typical artists’ paint or pigment color wheel includes the blue, red, and yellow primary colors. The corresponding secondary colors are green, orange, and violet or purple. The tertiary colors are red–orange, red–violet, yellow–orange, yellow–green, blue–violet and blue–green.

A color wheel based on RGB (red, green, blue) or RGV (red, green, violet) additive primaries has cyan, magenta, and yellow secondaries (cyan was previously known as cyan blue). Alternatively, the same arrangement of colors around a circle can be described as based on cyan, magenta, and yellow subtractive primaries, with red, green, and blue (or violet) being secondaries.

Most color wheels are based on three primary colors, three secondary colors, and the six intermediates formed by mixing a primary with a secondary, known as tertiary colors, for a total of 12 main divisions; some add more intermediates, for 24 named colors. Other color wheels, however, are based on the four opponent colors, and may have four or eight main colors.

Goethe’s Theory of Colours provided the first systematic study of the physiological effects of color (1810). His observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his color wheel, “for the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those that reciprocally evoke each other in the eye.”. In this, he anticipated Ewald Hering’s opponent color theory (1872).

color wheel full explanation


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Basic color theory

color wheel pencilsThere are three basic categories of color theory – the color wheel, color harmony and context. Color theory generates a logical structure for color, but can encompass a host of definitions, concepts and design applications.

As mentioned above, the color wheel contains three primary colors, three secondary colors and six tertiary colors. The primary colors are thought of as traditional colors and cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors. All colors are derived from these three hues. The secondary colors are formed by mixing the primary colors and the tertiary colors are formed by mixing a primary and a secondary color.

Color harmony refers to conveying a visually pleasing arrangement, and engages the viewer by forming balance and an inner sense of order. There are three basic theories in relation to color harmony – a color scheme based on analogous colors (any three colors side-by-side on the color wheel), a color scheme based on complementary colors (any two colors that are directly opposite each other on the color wheel) and a color scheme based on nature (derived from natures images such as plants).

A multifaceted area of color theory is how color behaves in relation to other colors. Comparing colors and their effects is color context. Color context is used in many optical illusions, as contrast and placement will trick the eye in perceiving movement or depth of the design. Saturation, placement, hue, darkness and lightness all play a role in the context.