Archive for June, 2012

Reconsidering the Color Wheel, Part 2

Friday, June 15th, 2012

In order to understand the pigments in my own watercolor palette better, I decided to chart my paints. I wanted not only to indicate the complementary pairs but to record gradations of intensity, carrying the color from one high-intensity hue, through the balanced gray, across the wheel to the high-intensity complementary hue. In the process, I had to correct some of my own erroneous assumptions, like the yellow/purple pairing.

Munsell style color circle

As I wrote last time, rather than relying on the old tried and not-so-true three-primary color wheel, I turned instead to the color theories of Albert Munsell.

Since not all the paints in my palette corresponded precisely with the major and minor hues in the Munsell circle, I chose those that seemed closest. I ranked similar colors outside the circle, roughly in order of hue, to help me better judge what each of their complements would be without having to chart my entire palette. Not having a single purple-blue paint to complement my Winsor Lemon, I combined Brilliant Blue Violet and French Ultramarine Blue to create the appropriate blend.

I did not use any ready-mixed gray in the color wheel but made a swatch of Payne’s Gray, outside the wheel, for comparison purposes. No black or white paint was used. If you want a list of the specific paints I used, send a request to

Reconsidering the Color Wheel, Part 1

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Most of us learned about the “triadic” color wheel back in grade school (though we didn’t go so far as to call it that). That’s the one that shows equally spaced primary colors—yellow, red, and blue—separated by secondary colors—orange, purple, and green. Because of this early and well-ingrained training, the concept of an alternative color chart can be difficult for some of us to grasp.

The Munsell color system, in contrast, spaces yellow, red, and blue at less regular intervals around a circle and includes purple and green as additional “major” hues located between red and blue or blue and yellow, respectively. Then, centered between each pair of these five hues is a “minor” hue that combines the two major hues that flank it. Hence, the Munsell circle reads: red, red-purple, purple, purple-blue, blue, blue-green, green, green-yellow, yellow, and yellow-red, which brings us back to the original red.

The Munsell color system is considerably more complex than this, incorporating value and chroma variations as well as hue to differentiate and identify specific colors. But you have to start somewhere, so I looked first at the most basic hues.

The Munsell color circle is particularly useful in identifying complementary hues that will produce a neutral gray. In childhood, most of us were taught that the complement of any primary color is the secondary color that appears directly opposite it on the color wheel. However, these pairs of complements don’t always produce a neutral gray when combined. Yellow and purple, for instance, made an orangey brown, not gray. I knew that in order to make a neutral gray the purple would have to be bluer to balance out the warmth of the yellow. The purple-blue indicated in the Munsell circle proved a much more satisfactory complement to yellow. So I have begun using the Munsell system to find truer complements for all the colors.

Next time I’ll write about how this applies to my own watercolor palette.