What Is the Color Wheel?

You've probably heard a lot about this tool, but what exactly is the color wheel, and how does it work?

The color wheel is an important tool to get to grips with when you begin a visual art.

To put it simply: if colors were words, the color wheel would be the alphabet–it’s what you need to speak this language well.

What Is the Color Wheel? 1
Color wheel

Let's take a closer look:

The color wheel is a tool presenting colors in a circular structure in a particular order. It’s made up of 12 colors based on the RYB system, i.e. red, yellow, and blue. The colors’ order cannot be modified as it provides us with key information: it shows us how each color was created.

The system is named after the primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Then, come the secondary colors, which are the result of mixing the primary colors. For example, green is the result of mixing blue and yellow, while violet is produced by combining red and blue. Then, there are the tertiary colors. The names of the tertiary colors are a combination of the name of the primary color and the name of the secondary color that you’ve mixed together, for example: orange-red.

Color wheels can be presented in blocks or as a color gradient. How many colors a wheel made up of blocks of color includes will depend on the preference of the creator. They usually have 12 or 24 colors, but sometimes 48 or more!

What Is the Color Wheel? 3
You can use the color wheel to explore different tones and shades

But what exactly is the color wheel for?

The color wheel helps us to understand and see lots of colors at once, and therefore pick harmonious combinations. It is useful for understanding why some shades work well together, combine well, and make a good palette. To put it briefly, it visually shows how colors behave and how they relate to each other, which makes using them easier. This understanding is not only aesthetic and technical. It also helps us to express emotion.

In fact, color psychology studies and organizes the meaning and the emotions that each shade awakens. When we understand the symbolism and how each color group acts narratively, we can decide what type of palette to use for each project and consciously determine what we want to express, what we want to provoke.

What Is the Color Wheel? 5
Colors interact with each other in different ways

Where did this tool come from?

The first color wheel was created as a result of experiments carried out by Isaac Newton between 1665 and 1666. He observed that sunlight, passing through a prism, was broken down into a spectrum of colors. Newton explained this phenomenon with the hypothesis that a beam of sunlight contained different rays that refracted differently, and were perceived as different colors when observed separately.

When these rays were mixed, the visual system perceived, in turn, new colors. Newton maintained that the best model to explain the perception of color was the form a circle with a certain logical order that from then on was called "Newton's color circle".

What Is the Color Wheel? 7
There are many different ways that you present a color wheel

Painting a color wheel

The color wheel we have been talking about is the natural color wheel, the colors of which are the "colors of light," because of how they are formed. However, when painting, dyeing, or printing, we use subtractive color, called CMYK. These colors aren’t formed by light refracting but by combining pigments. When mixing colors using subtractive color, the primary colors are magenta, cyan, and yellow instead of red, yellow, and blue. This is because magenta and cyan are purer when it comes to dyeing. When we mix these primary colors, we get our secondary colors, followed by our tertiary colors.

What Is the Color Wheel? 9

While intuition is a huge part of the creative process, certain tools will help you get the most out of your project. Learn more about the color wheel.

English version by @eloiseedgington.

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