Purpose of the Color Wheel

By Neil Kapit

The color wheel is an invaluable tool for any graphic designer. Even though it is a simple shape with a variable number of colors inside, it is a format that clearly displays the relationships between the colors. If a designer knows the principles behind the wheel, she can use it as a handy reference for how color combinations work.

Primary Colors

The core colors in every wheel are red, blue, and yellow. These are the primary tones that are used to make all other colors. They are positioned in a triangular arrangement, the tips of the color sections only converging in the exact center of the wheel. The most basic color wheel has only these three colors, each taking up a third of the total space; other color wheels add more tones, but they do so by mixing the three primaries.

Secondary and Tertiary Colors

Between the primary colors are the three secondary colors, each set between two of the primaries. These colors are made from an equal mixture of two primaries. Orange is made from red and yellow, green is made from yellow and blue, and purple is made from blue and red. The wheel gets much more complex when tertiary colors, containing all the possible mixtures in between the spaces on the color wheel, are considered. There are an infinite number of these tones.

Color Relationships

The reason the color wheel is an important tool for artists is because it displays the relationships between the colors. In general, the way the colors contrast with each other can be defined as either analogous or complementary. Analogous refers to the colors that are close to each other on the wheel, which are similar in tone. Complementary colors, on the other hand, are across from each other on the wheel. The complementary colors are as different from each other as possible and create a dissonant effect.

Color Temperature

Another important idea that the color wheel vividly displays is the concept of color temperature. The wheel is divided in two halves of temperature, with red, orange and yellow colors representing the " warm" colors, and green, blue and purple being the " cool " tones. The temperatures are another concept used to determine how colors work with or against each other; they also are associated with the visceral effects of the colors and the feelings people associate with them.

Color Harmony and Dissonance

The impact of the color combinations that a designer uses is informed by the theories presented by the color wheel. If an artist wants to create a visually pleasing harmonic effect, he will use analogous colors. If he wants to create a jarring, uncomfortable image, then using complementary colors can work well. And the temperatures of the colors can be used to enhance these effects. The color wheel provides any artist with a concise visual reference for these theories