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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 fashion designers use color wheels to create color schemes that produce a desired artistic effect.
What Are Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Colors?
The color wheel is anchored by three primary colors that form a triadic color scheme. In the traditional RYB color model, these primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. You can mix the primary colors to form secondary colors: green, orange, and purple. Mixing a primary color with a secondary color results in a tertiary color: magenta (red-purple), vermillion (red-orange), amber (yellow-orange), chartreuse (yellow-green), teal (blue-green), and violet (blue-purple).
What Is Color Theory?
Color theory is a set of guidelines for mixing, combining, and manipulating colors. Color theory includes ideas like:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
How to Match Clothes Using the Color Wheel
Apply an understanding of basic color theory to mix and match outfits from your wardrobe.
- Start with analogous colors. Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel and share a common hue. When incorporating new colors into your wardrobe, find a color that feels safe to you—for example, light blue. On the color wheel, blue falls between teal and blue-violet. If you feel comfortable with light blue, add on a teal or blue-violet for a subtle, two-color palette.
- Embrace complementary colors. Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel and can make for a beautiful power clash: Think fuchsia and chartreuse, or burgundy and forest green. When you make bold color choices, both colors stand out.
- Wear accessories that don’t “match.” Unless you're going for a full monochrome look, don't worry about matching your belt to your handbag and shoes. These smaller accessories are actually a great place to experiment with bright colors.
- Mix neutral colors. Neutral colors are a great base for working with brighter colors, but they can also work together. Color mixing isn't just about bold colors—neutrals like brown, black, navy blue, and white almost always pair well, so don't be afraid to wear black pants with brown shoes.
- Wear denim as a neutral color. Consider denim a neutral color, meaning you can mix it with any other color (including blue) and it will probably look great. This also means you can mix denims. The easiest way to do it is with shades of denim that are similar to each other but different enough that your look won't be too matchy. Try pairing mid-wash jeans with a light-wash denim shirt, or dark-wash jeans with a mid-wash denim jacket.
- Organize your closet according to the color wheel. Simplify the process of choosing an outfit by organizing your closet by color. Color-coordinating your closet will make it easier to find exactly what you're looking for, and it will also help you create new color combinations. Grab the piece that you want to wear and hold it up next to the other items in your closet; you'll be able to see which color families work best with your main color.
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