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Colour Theory №1.1

The Colour Wheel

R Proffitt
by Richard Proffitt
iopan design

The experience of colour is a mystery and a delight to young and old alike. Our earliest memories are quite often of on object of a particular colour which somehow made an impression on our developing brain. As an artist and a designer I am keen to know as much as I can about the science around this phenomenon because the subjective experience of colour is wildly individualistic.

All colour theory starts with the presentation of the colour wheel — often accompanied with the amazing experiment where colour can be visualised by splitting white light with a prism. This is a useful device to help us think about how colour is an experience of different wavelengths on the visable part of the electro-magnetic spectrum.

Subtractive V's Additive Colour

In the following examples, we are dealing with “Subtractive Colour” - The colour of paints and pigments which partially or completely subtract (that is, absorb) some wavelengths of light and not others; as opposed to “Additive Colour” which is considered with coloured light, with red, green, and blue being the primary colours normally used in additive colour system.

A simple colour wheel
The Basic Colour Wheel

Here you can see the colour wheel comprised of twelve seperate colours; So there are the 3 Primary Colours; 3 Secondary Colours and 6 Tertiary colours. (see more on this below). The smaller wheel in the centre is turned 180 degrees, showing each colour's complimentry next to it.

Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colours

Study the following colour-wheel diagrams to familiarise yourself with the three most important sets of colours. So, lets begin with the primary colours. With Red, Yellow and Blue.


The Primary Colours

Primary Colours

The un-reducable Primary Colours are: Red, Yellow and Blue. In traditional colour theory (used in paint and pigments), primary colours are the three pigment colours that can not be mixed or formed by any combination of other colours. All other colours are derived from these three hues.

The Secondary Colours

Secondary Colours

The Secondary colours are Violet/Purple, Orange and Green. Secondary subtractive colours are produced by mixing two other subtractive primary colours together. Hence: Red and Yellow make Orange, Red and Blue make Violet/Purple and Yellow and Blue make Green.

The Tertiary Colours

Tertiary Colours

There are six Tertiary Colours and they are called: Yellow-Orange, Red-Orange, Red-Purple, Blue-Purple, Blue-Green, Yellow-Green

These colours are made by mixing a primary colour with an adjacent secondary colour. When naming tertiary colours the primary and secondary colour names are joined by a dash (-) with the primary always being the first colour.

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More Colours Relationships

Now that we've met what you might call the ‘First Twelve Colours’ - seen how they are all created from those first three hues and we've given them all names, it's time to look at their relationships to one another and to how they fit into the Colour Theory System. Firstly, and we've already touched on it, each colour has a special pairing which is called it's Complementary Colour. It could also be refered to as it's opposite, since they sit exactly opposite each other on the colour wheel.


Complimentary colours

Complimentary Colours

Complementary colours are pairs of colours which, when combined, cancel each other out. When placed next to each other, they create the strongest contrast for those particular two colours. Due to this striking colour clash, the term opposite colours is often considered more appropriate.

Split Complimentary colours

Split Complimentary Colours

When it comes to Split Complimentary colours, you are always talking about getting three hues. A Split Complementary colour Scheme is often favoured by designers when the first colour choice needs strengthening by more than one alternative. First you choose your main starting colour from the wheel and select the two colours on either side of its Complementary colour.

Analogous colours in sets of three

Analogous Colours

Analogous Colours sit right next to each other on the wheel. They are a popular choice due to their natural harmony. Analogous colour schemes usually match their colours well and create serene and comfortable designs.

Analogous color schemes are often found in nature and are harmonious and pleasing to the eye. However, make sure you have enough contrast when choosing an analogous colour scheme.



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