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Turn the Color Wheel

Color Theory Made Easy

By Denise Turner, ASID, CID, CMG

Color plays an important role in conveying information. Marketing experts, artists, and scientists know that the colors in our environment have profound affects on us physically and emotionally, and can even stimulate, relax, weaken, or empower us.

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We can credit Sir Isaac Newton with developing the first circular diagram of colors in 1666and his findings are still relevant today. To identify color, distinguish pigments, and understand color mixing it's important to be familiar with the color wheel. This wheel helps us understand color and its origins, which guides us in coordinating appropriate paint colors with building materials and décor.

This wheel consists of twelve hues arranged circularly in equal steps or intervals:
  • Three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue
  • Three secondary colors: orange, green, and violet
  • Six tertiary colors: red-orange, yellow-orange, blue-green, yellow-green, blue-violet, and red-violet.

Color and Basic Terminology

There are three primary definitions to all colors, and with these attributes one can accurately designate or classify any noticeable color.
  • Value describes the relative lightness or darkness of a color.
  • Hue is the color family name and the aspect we generally associate with color. A change of hue occurs with movement around the color wheel.
  • Saturation (also known as chroma or intensity) is a measure of the purity of the hue (the brightness or dullness of a color).

The color wheel is an artificial tool (it doesn't really exist in nature) that artists use to understand how to organize color. The color wheel is divided into cool and warm colors. Cool colors are those on the left side of the wheel between yellow-green and violet. Warm colors are on the right side of the wheel between yellow and red-purple. All other colors are achieved by mixing colors together.

Primary colors: Red, blue, and yellow are pure colors; they are not a mixture of any colors. They are the basis of all other colors.

Secondary colors: Orange, violet, and green are made by mixing equal parts of two primary colors. The three secondary colors lie halfway between the three primary colors on the wheel. 

Tertiary or intermediate colors: Red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet are made by mixing equal parts of a primary color and its closest secondary color.

Color Harmony

Do your color combinations soothe or sting?  Some people may comment on a color as being ugly, but most likely the so-called ugly color is perfectly fineit's just hanging out with the wrong crowd. An unappealing color combination is known as an inappropriate color harmony.

Harmony indicates order and balance. In terms of the home, creating harmony involves choosing colors that work well together. An unbalanced scheme can be so bland that it provokes no reaction or be so chaotic that viewers cannot bear to look. There are several types of color harmony, and the color wheel can help you to use them effectively.

Monochromatic harmony is clean, elegant, balanced, and visually appealing; it is easy on the eyes, especially in hues of blue or green (as pictured below).

Monochromatic harmony is based on one color family and uses variations of lightest saturation to create an effect. Darker shades reflect less light. It is typically better to reserve darker shades for accent colors and use lighter colors at the end of the range for larger areas.
Elegant Contemporary Living Room
Tobi Fairley
Complementary harmony is bright, high-contrast, and generally well liked.

This scheme consists of two colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel: red and green, yellow and violet, or orange and blue (as pictured below). The challenge of a complementary color scheme is that it may become too bright. Flags, sportswear, advertising, and stage design make good use of this color harmony.
Dramatic Contemporary Living Room
Christopher Coleman

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