’s Color Wheel Essay, Research Paper

The color wheel taught to most people today is the twelve-hue color circle developed by the Swiss color scientist, Johannes Itten. This color wheel is based on three mixtures of pigments, or a triad mixture, with red, yellow, and blue as the primary triad. All hues are formed from mixtures of equal or unequal amounts of primaries. Equal mixtures of two primaries result in the secondary hues and form the triad of green, orange, and violet. In this color wheel, six intermediate hues are created by equal mixtures of primary and secondary colors and form two more triads. When mixing pigments, color mixture is described as subtractive. When white light (or sunlight) hits a surface most of the light energy is absorbed. We perceive only the color that is reflected from the surface. In this situation, the part of the spectrum that is absorbed is “subtracted” from white light.

In theory, equal mixtures of subtractive primaries should result in black, however, when mixing red, blue, and yellow primaries together, the resulting mixture is more likely to be gray, brown, or greenish. The Itten color wheel works well as a chart, but is flawed as a practical guide for the actual mixtures of pigments. The primaries used in this color wheel are somewhat inaccurate. Moreover, pigments in paint vary greatly in opacity and undertones, and it is difficult to create pure secondary and tertiary hues from primary mixtures.

In demonstrating why people are more inclined to favor some combinations rather than others, Itten explored both subjective reasons, including those related to ancient and modern works of art, and objective reasons- measurable color relationships. He started with the concept of a color circle, in which the familiar colors of the rainbow are stretched into a wheel that encompasses red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple sections. Although earlier color scientists had explored color circles, Itten was the first to realize the harmony inherent in color pairs according to their spatial relationships with one another. For instance, the most fundamental rule of color combining is that two colors that lie directly opposite one another on the color wheel generally look good together; a useful guideline when selecting foreground and background colors.

Itten found that the effectiveness of color relationships could often best be explained with reference to seven distinct color contrasts. The first is the contrast of hue, such as the inherent visual difference between blue, yellow and red. Another is the light-dark contrast, from the extreme of night/day to the subdued effects of neutral grays. The next is the cold-warm contrast, based on measured human response to warm colors (red, orange, yellow) and cool colors (blue, green, brown). The fourth is complementary contrast, found in pairs of colors that Itten said “require each other, incite each other to maximum vividness when adjacent, yet annihilate each other to gray-black when mixed.” After that is simultaneous contrast, caused by the fact that for any given color, the eye “requires” the complementary color and generates it spontaneously if it is not already present. Another is the contrast of saturation, which relates to the difference between pure, vivid, intense colors and dull, pastel, more neutral colors. Finally is the contrast of extension, which involves the relative areas or sizes assigned to different colors. By understanding and applying these different kinds of color contrast, the skilled artist can wield incredible power in shaping the viewer’s emotional and aesthetic response to a graphic, page or image.


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