Reconsidering the Color Wheel, Part 1

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.

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