Color Wheel

color wheel - cmy|rgb color wheel
Additional and higher resolution downloads below

Note: 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.1   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 RGB uses color wheel - rgb
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for CMY(K) uses color wheel - rgb
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the CMY/RBG 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.2 Having seen how it works on the press, they are forced to reconcile this understanding of color as it relates to the traditional artist color wheel they’ve been taught in art school.

The goal, then, is to create a more accurate color wheel theory.3

Traditional Color Wheel

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

The traditional color wheel is not wrong, just missing something. The traditional color wheel we’ve all been taught in art classes could use a lift from the extra-spectral color magenta. Bringing magenta into the mix can create a more accurate color wheel theory.4 And, interestingly, it is done like this:

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

The outer colors of the projection are the three primary colors of the additive color model: red, green and blue (RGB). As transmissive attributes of color, these primaries are used in contemporary projection techniques (such as television and computer monitors) from a black-screen source to produce the illusion of the full color spectrum through in-retina visual mixing: all colors “seen” are actually proportional amounts of red, green and blue to simulate the other colors (orange, purple, etc).

When the RGB primaries are projected on a white screen, a curious thing happens: the secondary colors produced by the projection are cyan, magenta and yellow. And, interestingly, these are exactly the three primary colors of the subtractive color model.5 Thanks to the work of James Clerk Maxwell, we know that CMY is a much better arbiter of true color mixing than the primary colors of red, blue and yellow of the traditional color wheel. CMY produces more accurate and predictable color mixing results with inks on white paper.

So our contemporary visual color wheel could have a foundation in this overlap. Magenta can be the elusive “unified field” that reconciles the two paradigms of color and wavelength, the additive and subtractive. This new color wheel can be constructed from this resultant pattern of the two models combined, with each primary taking its place on an equidistant spot on the wheel and, to complete the circuit, the secondary colors that are created by the visual mixing of the six primary colors, in equal proportion, then fills in the remaining six spaces of a 12-slice pie.

Limitations

The CMY/RGB color wheel (and its correlating grid) represents a good visual model of color for the purposes of studying hue, value and balance of pure theoretical color — at least, color as represented in the transmissive light arena, the additive model. I’d say it also improves upon the traditional artist’s color wheel in terms of visual color complements.

But I wouldn’t use this color wheel to mix pigments on the palette.

Even though the traditional color wheel assumes you can take both the visual and mixing aspects of colors and represent the relationship on one handy wheel, that is not the case, as many frustrated kindergartners find out. Mixing yellow and blue pigments do not make green. In reality, in the world of pigments, yellow and cyan make green. Or, to say it another way, yellow and blue light make green. But, yellow and blue paint do not make green.

Determining a color’s mixing attributes requires a mixing scale that holds up to the properties of pigments: the metals and substances that absorb and otherwise bounce the light into our eyes. A color’s visual complement is actually different than its mixing complement because the material substance of pigments (color created by reflection of light, or subtractive model) is not the substance of light itself (the transmission of light, or additive model).6

So while this magenta color wheel represents a good balance of colors represented on the additive spectrum, paint is not light. For mixing paint, we need to find the pigment equivalent to the primary colors represented on the color wheel, and then find the complements (or opposites) that can be mixed to create all the colors in between. CMY is a pretty good start, and no less than James Clerk Maxwell and a hundred thousand print shops across the world would attest to the power of a magenta-based mixing system. But Pantone is not a color wheel, and determining color relationships and complements on a relationship grid would be helpful. Perhaps somebody out there will invent an alternative mixing (or pigment) color wheel.

That said, there is a primary mixing system, created by the paint manufacturer Lascaux, that is configured around a 5-color pentagram, that includes magenta.7 They have some color exercises in their product literature, with some starter ratios for common or popular colors, but it does not go the distance as far as creating a mixing color wheel or gradient spectrum. I’ve included some mixing results from their system in my pigments tests, but I have not completed the circuit for a wheel-type complement graph (as it was beyond the scope of my research at the time). I’ve also noticed that some other paint manufacturers are beginning to match their own color spectrums to the magenta color wheel, and I’ve listed some of the brands in a separate comparison chart. Here are some links.

  pigment mixing chart Using the Lascaux Sirius primary color system to explore the concepts of additive and subtractive color.

  acrylic brands comparison chart Some notes I took while researching the constituent elements of pigment.

Last updated December 14, 2015

Notes

1 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. "RGB vs CMYK vs PMS: Deciphering Design’s Confusing Color Jargon." Company Folders (blog). July 19, 2013. Accessed December 14, 2015.
Seeley, Justin. "RGB vs. CMYK". Lynda.com. July 5, 2012. video lecture. Accessed December 14, 2015.
Adobe Support Community. "Convert image from RGB to CMYK and back to RGB." Adobe forums, posted January 15, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2015.

2 Naismith, Scott. "Colour Theory: The Truth About The Colour Wheel," YouTube. February 18, 2012. Video file. Accessed December 14, 2015.

3 Jusko, Donald A. "The Real Color Wheel". Real Color Wheel for Artists, July 25, 2005. Accessed April 4, 2016.

4 Mould, Steve. "The Curious Case of Magenta." Steve Mould (blog). October 23, 2009. Accessed December 14, 2015.

5 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. "Imaginary or Imperfect Primaries: Do Primary Colors Exist?" Handprint. Revised August 1, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2015.

6 MacEvoy, Bruce. "An Artists’s Color Wheel" Handprint. Revised August 1, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2015.

7 Lascaux Colours & Restauro. Lascaux Sirius Acrylic Colours. Company website. Accessed December 14, 2015.