Back when you were in high school or middle school, you might have had an art teacher who picked up a circle full of colors and announced to the class, “This is a color wheel. Learn it.”
If you were really lucky or had a very good art teacher, they’d take the time to explain how the color wheel works.
No worries! Even if you weren’t luck then, we’ll make up for it by explaining what the color wheel is, why it’s a wheel, what it’s not and (later down the road) how to use it.
What a Color Wheel Is
There are twelve colors spread evenly around the surface of a color wheel. Some color wheels show only the pure color – known as the hue. Other wheels, like Christine Fowler’s color wheel shown here, contain hue, tint, tone and shade.
- Hue – the pure color
- Tint – the hue plus white
- Tone – the hue plus grey
- Shade – the hue plus black
Why a Color Wheel is a Wheel of Colors
The placement of the colors on a color wheel is not arbitrary. The three primary colors are equally spaced around the wheel, with the secondary colors (mixing two primaries together) next, and the tertiary colors (a primary mixed with a secondary) filling in the gaps.
- Primary colors = red, yellow, blue
- Secondary Colors = green, violet, orange (made by mixing the primaries)
- Tertiary Colors = red-orange, red-violet, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-violet, blue-green (made by mixing the primaries and secondaries)
What a Color Wheel Isn’t
A color wheel is not a collection of every color possible in the Universe. You won’t find every shade of beige on a color wheel, nor will you find every combination of colors that work together. You won’t find any guidelines for what will work together – not until you see how the wheel’s components relate to each other. (NEXT post, I promise!)
Are your eyes glazing over from color wheel jargon?
There are more color wheel designs, including some that use 24 colors instead of the basic 12 shown here, and some wheels that deal with opponent colors, where divisions rely on the color sets that can be seen by the human eye’s rods and cones, known as an opponent process.
But that skates near the edge of the BASICS of color wheels – and it won’t take long for me to skate right into territory that I know nothing about – so let’s stop there.
Many thanks to Christina Fowler for her free color wheel download and Photoshop file (.psd), used in this and related posts to demonstrate color wheel theory.