Knowing and understanding colour wheel basics can elevate your illustrations, artworks and designs.
The best living and past artists have created masterpieces by their use of colour alone.
If you don’t think colour is important, think again!
Following on from my previous post about how to use colour, within this blog post you will discover what colours make up the colour wheel, helping you discover a good understanding of print to digital colour, and how you can use colour to your advantage. Also learning about colour schemes, this blog post is the essential introductory guide to the colour wheel!
Colour has been the centrepiece for a lot of my illustration work, and I’m looking forward to sharing what I have learnt along the way.
Starting right at the beginning, colour wheel basics start with 3 primary colours of red, yellow and blue (you remember the song growing up!).
Some artists argue that green should also be part of the primary colours, but these are your three basic colours. This is where all of your colour starts come from and is mixed from too.
From your primary colours, secondary colours come next. Secondary colours include violet, green to orange.
These colours are mixed from primary colours to make a full array of different colours.
Chroma is a colour’s level of saturation, in relation to white.
Colour is increased in chroma on the edge of the colour wheel, with neutral grey in the centre.
An illustration which is high is chroma can look garish and bright, in contrast to an illustration that is low in chroma that can look matte and subtle (and perhaps boring!) – balancing these two is the key to colour success.
The next is a colour’s hue.
A colour can have multiple hues (a violet colour that looks both red and blue for example), but a hue is where it sits in terms on the colour wheel. A colour’s hue is important as it is the basis of a colour and what it represents.
Colour is also represented as tones too.
All colours differ in tonal value, some are dark (like dark blue), and some are lighter (bright yellow for example).
If looking at an RGB colour wheel, a dark tonal colour would be shown in the centre of the colour wheel, whilst a lighter colour would appear on the outside of the colour wheel.
If you are working on an image for screens, your colours will act and look differently to if it was printed. For screen images, colours are represented as R: red, G: Green and B: Blue (RGB), and it’s relationship to white.
If a theater lighting operative was to shine all of these 3 colours on the same spot, white will appear.
If you are designing for print however, you will use a colour space of C: Cyan, M: Magenta, Y: Yellow and K: Black (CMYK).
The colour wheel will look different to each of these colour ways.
Different Colour Schemes
As you now know what makes up the colours within the colour wheel, you can start selecting different colour schemes.
There are lots of colour schemes that you can choose from:
- Complimentary colours: colours that are opposite other colours in the colour wheel (blue and red, orange and green for example).
- Limited colour palette: selecting only several colours together, blue, light blue and orange for example.
- Tonal: a selection of colours which are the same in hue and chroma, but different in tonal value
- Monochromatic: colours which are of the same hue, but of differing chroma.
- Triadic colour scheme: Taking colours which are equally spaced around the colour wheel.
- Analogous colour scheme: Colours which sit next to each other in the colour wheel.
One great resource that I use, especially for digital work, is Kuler (or now Adobe Colour CC). Which gives you access to colour schemes, the colour wheel and making good colour choices.
Combining Both RGB and CMYK together
Having read James Gurney’s fantastic book on Colour and Light (a book that I highly recommend to give you a good understanding of colour wheel basics and more advanced advice), he states the fundamental issues with the traditional artist colour wheel;
“The idea that red, yellow, and blue are primaries is not set in stone. Any of the infinite hues on the outer rim of the graduating wheel could make an equal claim as a primary. In addition, none of the hues are secondary or composite by their nature. Green is no more secondary than blue. The third problem is that the spacing of colours on the traditional wheel is out of proportion.”
The traditional artists colour wheel is imbalanced, which Munsell’s colour wheel helps to solve.
Working from Albert Munsell’s colour wheel, you can go one step further and use a colour wheel that incorporates both CMY and RGB. Or to make it more memorable (credit James Gurney):
YCRMBCG: You can ride my bus, cousin Gus.
This creates more of a balanced colour wheel, and allow you to make accurate decisions.
Colour Wheel Basics: A Recap
So what have you learnt?
- Colour begins from primary colours, which are mixed to create secondary colours.
- Colours are represented as hue, chroma, and tonal value.
- Your colour will change depending if you are designing for print (CMYK), or screen (RGB).
- From understanding the colour wheel, you can choose intelligent and calculated colour schemes, like complimentary or limited colour palettes.
- You can take the colour wheel one step further by using Munsell’s colour wheel – which combines CMY and RGB together.
I hope you have enjoyed this blog post guys, and you have learnt about the colour wheel basics along the way too. Let me know what you think of this blog post by commenting below!
I’ll love to hear what you think of the advice above, and how you have used the colour wheel to help your art, illustration or design work.
If you enjoyed this blog post, do check my other article, discussing the colour palettes used by famous artists. From Van Gogh to Monet, see how you can steal their own colour theory tactics!
Cheers guys, and I hope you enjoyed this introductory post on colour wheel basics!
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