color wheel


A simple guide to picking a great color palette. No matter what the colors are, using colors that are certain distances from each other on the color wheel result in a great contrast of colors. The simple color schemes shown above are used in the most popular logos, posters, websites, paintings, and even movies and television.

Moses Harris’s chart (1766) was the first full-color circle. The 18 colors of his wheel were derived from what he then called the three ‘primitive’ colors: red, yellow and blue. At the center of the wheel, Harris showed that black is formed by the superimposition of these colors.


It has come to my attention that this post has been circulating again, and as an artist, I feel it’s time to dismantle that potentially limiting information. This is not a post to say “you must do this to be an artist,” but rather a post that I hope will bring attention to the fact that a cyan, magenta, and yellow palette is not necessarily the best thing to paint with, especially if you want to paint realistically. As an artist, you are free to do whatever you wish, but it is good to know why.

Let’s start with the first part of that post (swearing covered because I know I have younger followers):

This brings us to my first point, PRIMARY COLORS. 
Cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY/CYM) are NOT any more primary than red, yellow and blue (RYB). The “primaryness” of primary colors is and may always be in debate, as neither a CYM or RYB color palette will give you the entire range of visible color, but RYB is traditional for a reason and I’ll get to that later. To illustrate my point, compare this CMY color palette (source):

to this RYB color palette:

These are two completely different sets of colors and both will produce beautiful colors (though you will be hard pressed to find pure magenta and cyan in traditional paints), but there are colors on both that are out of the range of the other. (If you are working digitally to produce prints, by all means get comfortable with CMYK because that’s what printer ink works in, but that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms)

The post I’m arguing against says:

but MUD is the point! When you are painting from life, or just painting traditionally, you don’t necessarily want “PURE, STRONG COLORS” because newsflash! The colors you see in real life are NOT often pure or strong, but mud. There’s a reason that the somewhat duller and deeper RYB palette is used traditionally! Unless you’re painting a rave or something surreal or your “style” is unnatural colors, you’re not going to get a convincing painting with neons and high-chroma “PURE, STRONG COLORS.” Let me show you - in the next image, I’ve grabbed some of the purest, brightest colors in the images and put them off to the side (green #12 is from the shadow in the second pic but I forgot to add it): 

…and then I mapped them on the RYB and CYM palettes, matching the colors as best I could (approximating where colors would blend):

As you can see, the natural colors relate more closely to the RYB palette and create a wider gamut, while the “PURE AND STRONG” colors of the CYM palette are largely… useless (though it is good to keep in mind that as these are digital images, they are brighter than true paint). You use very little of the CYM palette and can find fewer colors on it. It lacks the deep red to green spectrum of RYB, while RYB only lacks cyan #11.

So, in conclusion, embrace the “mud” if you want to paint realistically. Go for dull, because that’s what’s real, that’s what you want to use to create convincing pics. No color palette of three primaries is going to give you the entire range of colors, but if you are going for a lean palette and you want to paint most true to life, go RYB. Those bright colors of a CYM palette may look nice on a wheel, but to paint true to life they will let you down.

But don’t let this post be the end-all post on color theory. Look into it yourself, buy paints as you feel you need them. Make a palette that’s right for you, your subjects, and your taste. Good luck and PAINT FROM LIFE!

Petition to start using these names for tertiary colors…

This color wheel is from The Grammar of Painting and Engraving (1874) by Charles Blanc, translated from the French by Kate Newell Doggett. 

Our current exhibition, Color in a New Light explores the Smithsonian Libraries’ collection through the topic of color. It’s on display in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum  until March 2017, though you can visit the online exhibition, including a Digital Library for the exhibition.