The Color Wheel

White light coming from the sun is a mixture of different wave lengths. The visible spectrum of this scale represents continuous gradation of different colors from red to violet. If you take these colors and put them into a circle merging the two ends, you’ll get a hue circle or with other word, a color wheel.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was the first who formed a circle like this. Then different artists created their own representation of the color wheel shifting the colors around the circle for different reasons. So when you do your research, be prepared to find different kinds of color wheels.

Traditional Color Wheel

The traditional color wheel splits the spectrum to 12 different colors.

Traditional Color Wheel
Traditional Color Wheel

Primary Colors

Artists consider red, yellow, and blue as the most basic colors also called primary colors. The idea behind it is that you have to be able to mix every other color out of the three primaries.

Secondary Colors

Mixing the primary colors with each other you can create secondary colors such as violet, green, and orange.


A color and the opposite color on the color wheel create a pair called complement. In the world of pigments and color mixing, these color pairs or complements are yellow-violet, red-green, and blue-orange. If you mix the coherent colors with each other, you’ll get a neutral gray color with no hue identity. The world of visual perception is a bit different. The complementary pair of blue is yellow there.

Problems with the Traditional Wheel

The concept of primary colors is not set into stone. Any of the hues on the gradating wheel can make an equal claim to be as a primary. Plus none of the hues are secondary or composite by their nature. Furthermore, the spacing of colors is out of proportion. See the uneven distribution on the clock face inside the wheel. There are reasons behind this spacing. Our eyes are more sensitive to small differences in yellow, orange, and red hues. Also pigments can be found in nature are more numerous for these warm colors.

The Munsell Color Wheel

Many contemporary realist painters use this color system developed by Albert Munsell in the early 1900’s. It splits the spectrum into 10 different hues.

The Munsell color wheel facilitates the exact numerical descriptions of color notes.

Munsell Color Wheel
Munsell Color Wheel

The CMYK color system

In the world of printing industry including film photography creaters use pigments. The three colors that mix the widest range of high-chroma colors are cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and black (K).

The RGB color system

The primary colors of light are red (R), green (G), and blue (B) as opposed to pigments. Lighting designers and computer graphics artists consider RGB as their primary colors, and CMY as their secondaries. Display devices like TVs, monitors, tablets or phones use red, green, and blue pixels to mix different hues.

The Universal Color Wheel

Placing RGB evenly between CMY on the wheel creates a universal color wheel. Think of these colors as the six equal primaries: yellow (Y), red (R), magenta (M), blue (B), cyan (C), and green (G) – YRMBCG. This is a mathematically accurate color wheel.

Universal Color Wheel
Universal Color Wheel