What is the chromatic circle?

We explain what the color circle is and how its colors are represented. In addition, the natural color circle and its models.

  1. What is the chromatic circle?

It is known as  the color circle  or color wheel to the graphic, orderly and circular representation of the colors visible by the human eye according to its hue or tone, often distinguishing between the primary colors and their derivatives. It is used both in subtractive representations of color (artistic or pictorial), as well as in additive (light) representations.

Commonly, the chromatic circles  are represented in a gradient of colors that make visible the transit from one to another hue. Other shapes include the stepped model, which includes 6, 12, 24, 48 or more different colors, and the star-shaped hexagram, so that its peaks represent each color and its opposites can be easily visualized and complementary.

These types of color tools are long-standing in human history . Already in 1436 the Renaissance artist and thinker Leonardo Battista Alberti, in his pictorial treatise  , created various geometric representations for the range of colors, including the circle, the rectangle and the triangle , from the four primary colors considered at the time : yellow, green, blue and red.

On the other hand, the model that inspires the current one, composed of the three primary colors (yellow, blue and red) and their respective derivations, was invented in the 17th century and is known as RYB (for the acronym in English of its primary colors:  Red ,  Yellow ,  Blue ). It was popularized in a book by the German poet Goethe called  Theory of Colors  (1810), in which he reached six colors in total and is still taught in painting academies .

According to this traditional chromatic circle model, we have to:

  • The warm colors of the spectrum are located to the right of the circle, and the cold ones, therefore, to the left.
  • The colors have an opposite on the wheel: blue is opposed to orange, red to green, yellow to violet, and so on.

The natural color circle

When all colors of the visible spectrum of light are distributed in a color circle, we have a natural color circle. This arises as a result of Newton’s studies of the nature of light and the subsequent emergence of color photography , thus being a fundamental tool in the color industry.

In this way, new models of color organization emerged, such as RGB ( Red ,  Green ,  Blue ; “Red, green, blue”), which operates based on the intensity of these three primary colors of light; or CMYK ( Cyan ,  Magenta ,  Yellow ,  blacK ; “Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black”), a modern version of the one proposed by Goethe and widely used in industrial publishing and printing.

These contemporary models can be classified into two:

  • Additive color models . They propose the composition of a color from the incorporation of light, that is, from the sum of colors, moving towards white. According to this model, the opposite colors would be: yellow – blue, magenta – green, cyan – red.
  • Subtractive color models . In this case, the composition of the color from the subtraction of light is proposed, that is, to move towards black in the superposition of colors. According to this model, the opposite colors would be: red – cyan, green – magenta, blue – yellow.

White and black are opposite colors, although they are not really colors but tones, just like gray: they have no color. White is considered the gathering of all colors of the spectrum (with a large dose of light and energy) while black is considered the absence of all colors (and therefore with very little light and energy).

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