A color wheel is a visual tool that helps artists, designers, and the like to choose color combinations that work together. Essentially, a color wheel is a circular diagram in which the primary colors (red, blue, and yellow) are spaced out evenly, and which show all colors in between.
If you mix primary colors in different combinations, you get the secondary colors (orange, green, and purple). From there, if mixed again, you get tertiary colors which include colors such as blue-green, red-orange, yellow-green, etc. These colors, and everything in between, are represented in the color wheel.
Historically, the color wheel was invented by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. This color wheel is what we call the traditional color wheel. Today, there are many different kinds of color wheels out there, but don’t let this worry you. The rules for color combinations apply all the same, no matter what color wheel you use.
So why use a color wheel? What’s the purpose? A color wheel provides essential information based on color theory. Color theory balances art and science and talks about the visual effects of different color combinations. It also shows us how to combine certain colors for them to work together visually. These colors that “work together” are known as color harmony.
Color is a powerful concept, and as humans, we consume different messages based on color. Color can help set the context and mood of an image and can evoke certain emotions. The color theory looks at the aesthetic and scientific qualities of color but also takes into account the psychological associations we have based on certain colors – due to the power of association and cultural contexts. This is why color is such a powerful force.
Different colors hold different meanings, and so the different ways that colors are positioned in relation to one another (on the color wheel) also impact meaning. So, let’s have a look at how exactly we use the color wheel, and then apply some of the rules for creating different effects using color as a visual apparatus.
When it comes to using the color wheel, people often find this daunting – but it doesn’t have to be! We’re here to simplify things a little for you so that you can be on your way to creating beautiful color harmonies.
The way we use the color wheel is by looking at the various geometrical attributes of the wheel. For example, the distance between colors is important – and you’ll see why in a second. By looking at the various colors and where they are positioned on the wheel, we can understand a little more about how colors work together. By using the color wheel we can play around with different hues and shades, as well as plan color schemes and mix different colors.
First, we’ll look at complimentary colors. ‘Complimentary’ just means highly contrasting, or opposite colors. So, complementary colors are colors that are positioned opposite to one another on the color wheel. These are colors with the most distance between them (i.e. the furthest away from one another as they can be). These colors are high in contrast to one another and usually create combinations that have the most visual impact, due to them being so different. For example, if we look at our wheel, orange and blue are complementary colors as they are positioned opposite one another.
So what happens if we need opposing colors, but we need more than just two. This is where split-complementary colors come in. So, instead of choosing the directly opposing color to your chosen beginning color, we look at the two colors next to it. For example, let’s take the example of green. Green’s direct opposite on the wheel is red. So if we take the two colors next to red we can see we’ll get more of an orange-red and then more of a pink-red, too. So think of following to the directly opposite color and instead “cutting through the middle”, you kind of split the path to a fork in the road and take those colors instead. This still gives contrasting colors, however, it provides us with a little more color choice.
So, let’s take it one step further and take colors that are also in this triangular, “fork-in-the-road” shape, but place them at equal distances apart. In other words, these are three colors that are evenly spaced on the color wheel. This offers a little more versatility as it provides us with colors that are still contrasting, however less so than complementary colors. This gives us a little more variation to play with. See the image below for examples of triad colors: red, blue, and green.
You also get tetradic colors, which are 4 colors spaced either in a square formation on the wheel or in a rectangular formation. This provides 4 colors that work well together and provide more of a harmonious look due to them not being too contrasting or opposing. See the image below for an example.
Monochromatic colors provide us with several tones/shades/tints of one base color. This color combination is far more subtle and when applied to images provides a stronger sense of harmony and a sense of a unified color scheme.
Analogous colors are just three colors placed directly next to one another on the color wheel. This can be highly impactful if used correctly, however, due to the colors being so similar, can be overpowering at times. When combining these colors, it’s usually best to choose one main color and use the other two as accent colors. However, they work well together to evoke a sense of calm, harmony, and tranquility, and can be found in a lot of natural scenes. They also make great gradient colors.
These are the main concepts when it comes to applying color theory and using the color wheel as the powerful visual tool that it is. We hope this helped bring a bit more clarity around this topic and that you can now go on and create beautiful, well-planned color schemes. Living life in color is what it’s all about!
The color wheel app above is created designed by Benjamin Knight.