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Whether you’re working in the realm of fashion, film, fine art, or interior design, the color wheel is a useful tool for finding color combinations.



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What Is a Color Wheel?

A color wheel is a circle diagram that illustrates the relationships between different colors. Sir Isaac Newton developed the first color wheel in his 1704 book Opticks. Newton created an asymmetrical color wheel with seven colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. In 1810, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe developed a symmetrical color wheel with just six colors (eliminating indigo) that is similar to the one we commonly use today. Artists and designers use color wheels to create color schemes that produce a desired artistic effect.

What Are Primary Colors?

Primary colors are colors that combine to make a range of other colors. Traditionally, these are red, yellow, and blue. In the RYB color model, the primary colors form a triadic color scheme—a group of three colors spaced evenly apart from each other on the color wheel. When mixed, these three primary colors form many other colors.

More accurate color theories actually use different primary colors. The CMYK color printing model deals with printed colors—cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. It is a method of subtractive color mixing in which printed colors absorb (i.e. subtract) light and combine to form a range of colors, including red, blue, and green. The RGB color model applies to colored light—like the light that emits from a phone or computer screen; its primary colors are red, green, and blue. The RGB model is a method of additive color mixing, meaning that different colors of light combine (i.e. add) to form other colors, including cyan, magenta, and yellow.

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What Are Secondary Colors?

Secondary colors are the result of mixing two primary colors. In the traditional color model, the three secondary colors are green (yellow plus blue), orange (yellow plus red), and purple (red plus blue).

What Are Tertiary Colors?

Tertiary colors are the combination of one primary color with one secondary color. There are six tertiary colors on the traditional color wheel: magenta (red-purple), vermillion (red-orange), amber (yellow-orange), chartreuse (yellow-green), teal (blue-green), and violet (blue-purple).

What Are Complementary Colors?

Complementary colors are colors found opposite each other on the color wheel. Complementary color schemes include blue with orange, red with green, and yellow with purple. These contrasting colors can make a bold statement when paired in fashion, film, photography, and other forms of art.

What Are Analogous Colors?

Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel. Analogous color schemes include yellow paired with chartreuse and green; red with vermillion and orange; and blue with teal and violet. The three colors in each pairing share a common hue, so they appear to match.


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What Is Color Theory?

Color theory is a set of guidelines for mixing, combining, and manipulating colors. Color theory includes ideas like:

  1. Color harmony: Color harmony describes color pairings that are visually pleasing and provide a sense of visual order. Color schemes based on complementary and analogous colors are generally perceived as harmonious. But, since humans respond to colors differently depending on personal preferences and life experiences, there are no universally “right” colors for achieving harmony.
  2. Color temperature: Color temperature deals with breaking colors down into warm colors (associated with sunset and daylight) and cool colors (associated with overcast light). Experimenting with combinations of warm and cool colors can help you mix colors to achieve a particular effect.
  3. Color context: Colors appear to behave differently when viewed in different contexts. For instance, a rusty orange may seem dull and subdued when placed beside a vivid yellow, but when paired with a dark purple, the orange suddenly seems much brighter.

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