Posted by : Amanda Stein Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Many people have heard of the color wheel, but did you know that using it involves an actual theory?  If you're in design, you probably already know this, but in case you don't, let's take an in-depth look at the color wheel theory, from how it got started, to where it is today, to how to use it for graphic design.

The History of Color Theory
You've probably heard of Sir Issac Newton and the apple that fell on his head leading to his “discovering” gravity, but what you probably don't know about him is that he also invented the first color wheel.  Newton accomplished this by splitting sunlight into a color spectrum consisting of red, orange, yellow, green, cyan and blue.  Recognizing that if he joined the two ends of the color spectrum he could accurately represent nature's own progression of colors, Newton's wheel is now known as the color wheel.
100 years later, Johann Wolfgang Goethe noticed the psychological effect colors had on people.  For example, blue cooled down hot tempers while yellow made people feel warm.  Goethe split Newton's wheel in half, sorting all of the colors onto a plus side (red, orange and yellow) and a minus side (green, violet and blue).  The plus side colors were shown to produce excitement and cheerfulness in people while the minus side colors produced weakness and uneasy feelings.
In Weimar, Germany, Swiss color and art theorist Johannes Itten was teaching at the School of Applied Arts (better known as the Bauhaus) when he came up with our current form of the color theory.  This modified version of the color wheel is based on red, yellow, and blue colors as the primary triad and includes twelve hues in between.

What is Color Theory?
So now that you know how it started, what exactly is color theory?  Simply put, color theory is a set number of principles that help designers create harmonious color schemes and combinations.  By mapping out the relationships between colors in the color wheel, accurate predictions can be made as to how colors will work with and in relationship to each other, all by simply looking at the color wheel.  This eliminates a lot of guess work, making the job of graphic designers and artists much easier.
The long explanation is as follows: any two colors that are directly opposite from each other on the color wheel are said to be “harmonious color combinations.”  For any three colors that form a triangle in relationship to each other or any four that form a square are also said to be harmonious.  These are called color schemes and no matter how you rotate the wheel, triangle or circle, the respective colors that fall within the geometric parameters are always going to be harmonious—it's a given.

How are Colors Arranged?
Before we go on, it's important to note that there are three different categories of colors on the color wheel:
  1. Primary Colors (Red, Yellow, and Blue).  Pure colors that cannot be formed by mixing any other colors together.
  2. Secondary Colors (Orange, Green, and Violet).  Colors that can be formed by mixing two or three of the primary colors.
  3. Tertiary Colors (Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, and Red-Violet).  Colors that can be made by mixing two or more of the secondary colors.
Further, these colors can be categorized by their psychological effect on the human mind by splitting them up (much as Goethe did) into warm and cool colors.
  • Warm Colors (Red, Orange and Yellow).  Colors that invoke fire and the sun.
  • Cool Colors (Blue, Green, and Violet).  Colors that invoke the sky and water.
Then, colors are broken down even further in terms of three properties:
  1. Hue is the purest form of color and can be used interchangeably with the word color.
  2. Saturation refers to the intensity of a color and is determined by how much or how little gray a hue contains
  3. Value is the lightness or darkness of a color. If the value is lightened it is called a “tint” and if it is darkened, a value is called a “shade.”  Tones in between tints and shades are called “midtones.”  

How to Use a Color Wheel

These are the basics of color theory.  In a design school, you will learn all about how to use color theory in practical applications including website, logo and product design.

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