What is a Color Wheel? - Definition & Types

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  • 0:04 The Origins of the Color Wheel
  • 0:35 Basic Color Wheels
  • 1:13 Color Combinations
  • 2:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

In this lesson, you'll learn what a color wheel is and see some different types. Artists and designers use color wheels to help them remember what colors work best with each other.

The Origins of the Color Wheel

Sir Isaac Newton is best known for his studies in the laws of gravity and his studies of physics in the 1600s. However, when he was 23, he made discoveries in the color spectrum. This was in 1666. Taking a prism, he held it to a window and saw what we would refer to today as a rainbow of colors. Taking this a step further, he took some more prisms and mirrors and experimented with splitting and dividing colors and observed a whole spectrum of colors. He put his discoveries into a color wheel.

Isaac Newton
newton

Basic Color Wheels

Every color can be traced back to the three basic colors on the color wheel. Red, yellow, and blue are known as the primary colors. It's impossible to mix any other colors together to make these colors.

By mixing the three primary colors together, you get the secondary colors. Red and yellow make orange; yellow and blue make green; and red and blue make purple.

Primary and Secondary Colors
Primary and secondary

Combining the primary and secondary colors, you get the tertiary colors. Blue and green become teal. Green and yellow become chartreuse. Yellow and orange become amber. Orange and red become vermillion. Red and purple mixed together become magenta. Purple and blue become violet.

Tertiary Colors
Tertiary

Color Combinations

Deciding what colors to use in a room can be difficult. Artists use different colors to create visual interest, while interior designers use color schemes that are pleasing to the eye. These range from complimentary colors, to triadic colors, to neutral colors and beyond.

Complementary colors are colors that are across from each other on the color wheel, such as red and green. This creates a high-contrast look. Analogous colors are colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, like blue-green, green, and yellow-green. Triadic colors are colors on the color wheel that form a triangle. One example of a triadic color scheme is purple, orange, and green.

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