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Posts: 69
Reply with quote  #1 

I was reading about the classification of of colour schemes as complementary, triadic, tetradic etc., when I suddenly realized that the language only makes sense if there is one true colour circle! I already knew that there were colour circles where the colours appear at different angles, stretching some parts of the circle and compressing others, and I was okay with that. But now it seems to me that it can't be okay to have different wheels, if the aesthetics of "primary", complementary, and tertiary colours, and so on, are to be laid down so strongly. 

As we screen-readers know, computers typically use a red-green-blue triad as the basis of their colour circle, and printers use the equivalent yellow-cyan-magenta complements. But colour designers, as in this article by Maureen Stone, typically use a red-yellow-blue triad, with green-purple-orange complements, to create a red-orange-yellow-green-blue-purple circle. There's no way around it. If orange "is" blue's complement, then yellow can't be, and if green "is" red's complement, then it can't be cyan. If a triadic scheme consists of red, yellow and blue, then it isn't possible to argue that red, green and blue are a triadic colour scheme. 

So, is there evidence that one particular colour circle is the "true" circle for aesthetic purposes, and if so, why? I notice that the red-yellow-blue system beloved of painters and other arty folk doesn't match the Natural Color System (NCS), which is supposed to be based on physiology, and has a colour circle based on a tetrad of red-yellow-green-blue. 


Posts: 1
Reply with quote  #2 
Color schemes can't be treated as science, though they are useful for categorizing different approaches to defining palettes. Many color design books are primarily examples of palettes, whose individual colors vary significantly from formal geometries of a hue circle. Both orange and yellow (and all the shades in-between) "complement" blue in the sense that they provide a harmonious contrast.

Remember also that color is three dimensional: both saturation and lightness are as significant in the choice of palette colors as the hue. Consider a pale, grayish green paired with a dark, burgundy red vs. bright, primary red + green. The first is elegant, the second is only appropriate at Christmas.

The physiology of color vision is opponent hues, as used in the NCS system. However, the red, green, blue and yellow colors are monochromatic (highly saturated, like laser light), so they can't be used for practical design, even on displays.

Color wheels are designed to be useful for synthesizing colors. That is, they are used to predict what color mixtures will create. Given three primaries, pairwise mixture creates the secondaries. Mixing opposite colors will create a neutral. (If the primaries sit opposite the secondaries, then this assumes mixing all three primaries creates a neutral).  This means your choice of color wheel will depend on your medium.

Printer inks tend to mix like dyes, paints mix pigments, but displays mix light. All mix differently, though the two subtractive media are more similar to each other than to light. For example, printer's magenta and cyan are much closer to "red" and "blue" paint than to the hot-pink and bright, blue-green colors on displays.

An excellent online resource for color mixing theory from a painter's perspective (including an extensive discussion of color wheels) can be found at:


Hope this helps.

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