Hues are the names of the colors of the spectrum. The relationships between hues are illustrated with color wheels. This lesson is about the color wheel for the pigment, or subtractive, color theory.

The objectives of this lesson are to:

Mix a set of primary colors: yellow, magenta and cyan.

Paint a series of chips that represent the color spectrum.

Assemble and label a twelve step color wheel.



Red, yellow and blue primaries


A color wheel is based on a circle that joins the ends of the spectrum and is helpful as a guide to mixing colors. There are many possible color wheel configurations.

Traditional color wheels use three primary colors: red, yellow and blue (the first or starting colors used to mix the wheel). Between them are shown the secondary colors: orange, green and purple (colors made by mixing the primary colors).

The red, yellow and blue color wheel is mostly useful as a conceptual model for color since the relationships are easy to see. This system is easy to understand and has been used for years* to teach color relationships. It does, however, fail to accurately depict color relationships and does not show the relationship between the additive and subtractive color theories. It also does not work well to mix all of the colors of the spectrum.

*Francios d'Aguilon declared in 1613 that red, yellow and blue were primary colors and when mixed with black and white could produce all colors. Maybe that was true in 1613.


Cyan, magenta and yellow primaries

A CMYK color wheel takes the 360 degrees of the color circle and finds the three colors that are the most equally spaced. The primary colors are: cyan, magenta and yellow. These are the colors of ink (along with black) that are used in most color printing systems. With so many people printing their own artwork on computer printers it becomes increasingly important to understand this color system.

The secondary colors in this scheme are: red, green and blue, the primary colors in the light theory.

These primary colors are all bright and since they are equally spaced around the color wheel a more complete set of colors can be mixed using them. With cyan, magenta, yellow, black and white paints any color that is printed can be duplicated.

The hues are on the outside of a color wheel. The center is neutral (achromatic). As you go from the center to the outside the color gets brighter and is at maximum saturation on the edge. More about the center of the color wheel in saturation.


Color disk with neutral colors in the center

A more accurate depiction of color is a color disk. This shows how the hues are located around the rim and the center is gray (achromatic) or neutral. The significance of this will be apparent when you study saturation (next).

The truth is that colors are mixed in a straight line (called a color chord), and not around the edge of the wheel. That is why a mixture is always duller than the starting colors -- and why the traditional red, yellow and blue color wheel does not really work to mix all colors.

A perfect circle is a more theoretical than practical model for a color disk. Pigments are made from different substances and have different intensities. The outside edge of the color disk would be uneven using available pigments, with reds and yellows the farthest from the (neutral) center.


Only three colors will be used to paint the color wheel: cyan, magenta and yellow.

Cadmium yellow light is the hue and will be used as the yellow primary color. It will be necessary to mix magenta and cyan.

ACRA magenta will be mixed with white to make a middle value magenta. Start by filling a small container (a 35 m.m. film canister) half full of ACRA magenta paint. Add white slowly until a sample (dry) of the mixture matches the value of the middle chip on your value scale -- making it a middle value color.

Make sure you stir the paints thoroughly, scraping the sides of the container, until the color is uniform throughout the container. Clean your brush very well if you are using it to mix your colors. You want to keep the primary colors as pure as possible.

Cyan is the mixture of phthalo(cyanine) blue and white paint. This time fill the container half full of white paint and add the blue paint slowly until the mixture dries the same value as your magenta sample. Phthalo blue is a very strong tinting pigment. It will take less of it to make the middle value cyan.

Paint a chip of each of the primary colors using two coats and cleaning the brush thoroughly between each color. Make the chips of the primary colors fairly large since they will probably be the largest color swatches in your color wheel.


The colors mixed from primary colors are called secondary colors. For our purpose, the middle mixture between the primaries are the secondary colors. You will mix a series of colors that go in small steps from one primary color to another and choose the best secondary color (the one half way "hue wise" between the primaries). This is similar to the way you mixed and chose the colors for your value scale. At least a dozen chips should be painted of the colors between each set of primary colors.

The secondary colors are named red, green and blue and are the primary colors of the additive or light color theory (called RGB colors).

The colors between the primary and secondary colors are called tertiary (third level) colors. They are named for their parent colors, primary color first (e.g. yellow green).
The center of the color wheel represents neutral (achromatic). If all the colors are mixed the result should be black (gray in reality since most colors contain some white). That is why it is called a subtractive color wheel (subtracting light).


More about choosing colors in Making the Color Wheel mini lesson.


You will need to pick three colors between each set of primaries that are equal steps in hue apart. Start with yellow and cyan. Pick three likely greens and overlap them with one edge cut like you did with the value scale chips. Substitute colors until you have what seems to be equal differences between every colors. Do not confuse hue and value. The changes in hue should be as equal as possible, but the value will change quickly as you leave yellow and become more gradual toward the bottom of the wheel.

Do the same with each set of primary colors. You should ends up with twelve color chips all equally different in hue from the next.

Do not be confused by the color names. The secondary red will be orangish (it is sometimes called red orange) and the secondary blue will look blue violet.




Put yellow at the top of the color wheel because it is the lightest hue.

The values of the colors will get darker as they go toward the bottom of the color wheel, with the secondary color blue as the darkest.

Do not try to duplicate the colors of the examples on this site -- they are not accurate enough. Choose your own.




Make a color wheel using 12 hues -- three primary colors and three secondary colors with the six tertiary colors between them and neutral in the center.

The colors must be chosen so that they are hues equally spaced around the color circle. The primaries must be cyan, magenta and yellow. It must be clear which colors are primaries, secondaries and tertiaries.

The design of the color wheel must have the secondary colors overlapping the primary colors to produce the tertiary colors.

Any shapes may be used but it should be clear which colors are primaries, which are secondaries and which are tertiaries.

Click on the above to go to a mini-lesson on constructing a color wheel for this assignment.



Student Example #1

Student Example #2

Student Example #3


It is important that the colors appear in the correct sequence. Check and double check.


The twelve colors must be in put in a design that respects their sequential relationship. Sketch some configurations using different shapes and/or sizes for the primaries, secondaries. The tertiaries are the shapes where the primary and secondary shapes overlap.

By overlapping two sets of shapes -- one for primaries and one (slightly smaller) for the secondaries the overlapping areas are the tertiaries.

This type of color wheel looks like the colors are transparent if the colors are accurately chosen.

More creative designs allow for more dynamic images.

Try different neutral backgrounds. Color can not be used as a background because it would effect the colors in the color wheel too much.

This style of color wheel shows more clearly how the colors are mixed. It also demands that choice of colors be more accurate.

Label this project COLOR. This project is worth 20 points: 10 points for the aesthetics of the color wheel design and 10 points for the accuracy of the colors.

© 2002 James T. Saw
Do not copy or reuse these materials without permission.