Before the days of Sir Isaac Newton’s experiments with light passing through a prism back in the late 1600’s our common understanding of light was that it was all white and the prism itself somehow added color. What Newton showed, however, was that all color was already in the light and the prism simply separated the light into its various color spectrum. He did this by sending white light through one side, letting it separate and then recombined the colors into white light with a second prism. He also showed that if you take a single color of light, such as red, and put it through a prism, the light remains red. The entire world was amazed by the discovery that light is the source of all color.
The color wheel was developed to put order to the colors we have available. The wheel’s three primary colors are red, yellow and blue and are positioned at three evenly spaced points around the circle. These three colors are called “primary” because they cannot be created by mixing any other color. These three primary colors can then be mixed to create any other color in various proportions, but these three are the foundation of all colors used.
Then there are the “secondary” colors which are created by combining any two of the primary colors. After that you can mix a primary with its neighboring secondary color together and get six tertiary colors.The color wheel is further organized into what artist refers to as cool and warm colors. By dividing the wheel in half you can find two groups of six colors, six warm and six cool. From these 12 colors all that we consider fundamentally vital to create our world of art is developed.
This can all be very confusing, which is why it is one of the foundational concepts I teach in my workshops on color. Understanding the color wheel is one of the secrets to taking your art to the next level.