A colour wheel is a useful tool used for understanding the relationships between colours. Used by designers, artists and photographers, they can be used to create balanced colourscapes based on the use of complimentary and harmonious colours.
The first colour wheel was developed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666 and features 12 colours, using the primary colours of red, yellow and blue as a basis.
One half of the wheel features the “warm” colours and the other the “cool” colours”.
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colours
In the artistic (or subtractive) colour models, the primary colours are red, yellow and blue. These are spaced equally around the wheel.
The secondary colours are produced by mixing primary colours, so mixing red and yellow gives orange, yellow and blue gives green, and blue and red gives violet. These colours also appear equally spaced around the wheel between the colours that produce them.
Finally, the tertiary colours are produced by mixing a primary and secondary colour and these are named after their constituent colours, so mixing green and blue gives blue-green, whilst mixing orange and yellow give yellow-orange. Again these colours appear on the wheel between the colours that produce them.
Lighter & Darker Colours
You can make all these colours lighter or darker by adding white or black respectively. A lighter colour is called a tint, whilst a darker colour is a shade. You can also add grey to create a different tone. These variations often appear on the back of the colour wheel.
Colours can be related in a number of ways.
Complimentary colours are those that appear opposite one another in the wheel, for instance orange and blue.
Analagous colours are colours that appear next to each other on the wheel, often in twos or threes.
A triadic scheme uses three colours that appear equally around the wheel, such as orange, green and violet.
A tetradic scheme uses a rectangle on the wheel to match fours colours, such as yellow, blue, violet and orange.
There are also other chords such as split complimentary and square.
Use In Photography
Knowing how colours relate to one another can be a useful tool in photographic composition. Finding a dominant colour and then contrasting it with a secondary colour can lift an image.
When deciding on how to capture a particular scene, knowledge of colour theory can help influence your composition to produce pleasing images. You can choose two colours and then find an angle to exclude anything that disturbs the balance of colours.
When designers use colour they often choose a dominant colour and match it with a secondary hue, sometimes adding in a third accent colour.
For more information about colour theory you can refer to the links shown below.