color wheel - cmy|rgb color wheel
12-color CMY/RGB color wheel
Represented in RGB colorspace

12-color CMY|RGB Color Wheel

color wheel

December 14, 2015


The CMY|RGB color wheel with three primaries of cyan, magenta and yellow (drawn from the subtractive color model), and three primaries of red, green and blue (drawn from additive color model), represents a more accurate interpretation of visual color than the traditional artist’s RBY color wheel (with three primaries of red, blue and yellow). The CMY|RGB color wheel provides a tool for analyzing color hue, value and balance among colors. It also provides a more contemporary judgement of color opposition (complements) than the traditional color wheel.


Some contemporary artists are beginning to challenge the traditional artists’ color wheel, particularly in light of their own personal experience with commercial printing processes. 1 Attempts are being made to reconcile this new contemporary understanding of color as it relates to the challenges presented by the limitation of pigments — more specifically, the constituent metals and chemicals that give pigment its color — to create a more accurate color wheel theory. 2

Farbkreis - Traditional Color Wheel
Farbkreis by Johannes Itten, 1961
Based on the traditional color wheel
By Zeichner: Malte Ahrens [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Visual colors are created in the mind as an interpretation of the wavelengths perceived by the photoreceptor cells of the eye. The majority of these wavelengths are frequencies mixed “out there” in the world from two primary sources, reflective and transmissive light.

Wavelength is not color per se, even in the so-called visible spectrum. The mind assigns a symbol, or color, to the wavelengths it receives in the retina. Where the mind does not have a symbol to associate with the wavelength, it makes one up.  A classic example of this phenomenon is the color magenta, an extra-spectral “color” that does not exist on the visible light spectrum and is created entirely in the mind.3

Reflective light, therefore, is the aggregate of wavelengths filtered from a light source having bounced off an object before getting to the eye, like the color represented in a leaf. Reflective light follows the subtractive color model: source light (like white sunlight) comes in contact with the atoms of an object (in this case the leaf) and some of the wavelengths are absorbed — or subtracted — by the molecular structure of the chlorophyll. The unabsorbed wavelengths are reflected back into the world containing only the frequencies of the visible color that reaches your eye, in this case a shade of green.

Transmissive light, on the other hand, is a wavelength of electromagnetic energy emitted by the source light itself, like a candle flame. The brain interprets the frequency of this electromagnetic energy and assigns the color associated with that wavelength. Transmissive light adheres to the additive color model: the source light itself emerges from the black nothingness by combining — or adding — color frequencies in proportion to the aggregate of the resulting color, in the case something like a red-orange-yellow.

The reflective or subtractive paradigm is in play when you look at a painting made of pigments: the molecular structures of the various metals in the pigments are absorbing source light and reflecting back the resulting frequencies. Conversely, the transmissive or additive model is in operation when you look at an image on a computer monitor: electromagnetic source energy is created in the hardware, and the projected light is received in the eye.

A Contemporary Color Wheel

A more contemporary color wheel takes into account these two paradigms of color and finds the unifying attribute between them.

The three primary colors 4 of the subtractive color model are cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY). These primaries have been established in contemporary color printing processes (such as inkjet and process printing) and replace the traditional artists' primary colors of red, blue and yellow to produce more accurate and predicable color mixing results on white paper. The three primary colors of the additive color model are red, green and blue (RGB). These primaries are used in contemporary projection techniques (such as television and computer monitors) to produce the effect of the full color spectrum through in-retina visual mixing from a black-screen source.

The unifying attribute between the two models can be found when projecting the RGB model on a white screen. The secondary colors produced are cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY).

RGB illumination
By en:User:Bb3cxv [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A contemporary visual color wheel can be constructed from this resultant pattern, with each primary taking its place on an equidistant spot on the wheel. The secondary colors fill in the remaining six spaces to complete the circuit.


These files were created in the CMYK colorspace for printing on a CMYK printer, therefore the RGB files are the result of export from CMYK. This may create technical issues in RGB, depending on your usage. 5   If you require accurate RGB representation, it is recommended to construct your color wheel originating within the RGB gamut.

These colors are machine color. For pigment equivalents, see the color mixing chart.

RGB color wheel - rgb
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.bmp    367 KB   .zip

.tif       362 KB   .zip   [ intel ]

.tif       362 KB   .zip   [ motorola ]
RGB color grid - rgb
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.bmp    474 KB   .zip

.tif       475 KB   .zip   [ intel ]

.tif       475 KB   .zip   [ motorola ]
CMYK color wheel - rgb
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.ai       213 KB

.eps     273 KB   .zip

.pdf     213 KB  

.tif       429 KB   .zip   [ intel ]

.tif       429 KB   .zip   [ motorola ]
CMYK color grid - rgb
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.eps     218 KB   .zip

.pdf     165 KB  

.tif       495 KB   .zip   [ intel ]

.tif       495 KB   .zip   [ motorola ]

The 12-color CMY|RGB color wheel (and its correlating grid) represents a valid visual model of color for the purposes of studying hue, value and balance. It also improves upon the traditional artists’ color wheel in terms of visual color complements. However, in practice it is deficient in determining a color’s mixing attributes (complementary or otherwise).6

There is recent research demonstrating that a color’s visual complement is different than its mixing complement, an acknowledgement that the material substance of pigment is not the substance of light itself 7 (see also The Argument, above). This distinction is a departure from the traditional notion that an artists’ color wheel holds both visual and mixing complements of all colors represented in one model.


1 Naismith, Scott (2012). "Colour Theory: The Truth About The Colour Wheel". 2012-02-18. Retrieved 2015-12-14.

2 Jusko, Don (2005). The Real Color Wheel. Earliest version 2005-07-25. Last modified 2016-06-12. Retrieved 2016-04-04.

3 Mould, Steve (2009). The Curious Case of Magenta. 2009-10-23. Retrieved 2015-12-14.

4 Because the mind assigns color based on wavelength — and all wavelengths are equal on the spectrum of frequency — it has been argued that the concept of “primary color” is really just an arbitrary notion outside an economic, mathematical or technological need to minimize the number of components required to produce all other colors. For more information, refer to:

MacEvoy, Bruce (2006). Imaginary or Imperfect Primaries: Do Primary Colors Exist? Retrieved 2015-12-14.

5 It has been my experience that when you convert colors from RGB to CMYK, you cannot convert back an retain the original RGB hues of your image. Likewise, when exporting from CMYK to RGB will not create the exact RGB equivalent. For more information about the RGB vs. CMYK colorspace, refer to:

Gendelman, Vladimir (2013). RGB vs CMYK vs PMS: Deciphering Design’s Confusing Color Jargon. 2013-07-19. Retrieved 2015-12-14.

Seeley, Justin (2012). "RGB vs. CMYK". 2012-07-05. Retrieved 2015-12-14.

Convert image from RGB to CMYK and back to RGB . 2015-01-15. Retrieved 2015-12-14.

6 The traditional artists’ color wheel is also incomplete in this regard, contributing to the frustration of many beginning artists. (Yellow and blue do not make green).

7 MacEvoy, Bruce (2006). An Artists’s Color Wheel. Retrieved 2015-12-14.