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For my current project, I'm trying to create a harmonious color scheme.

When looking at the tools like "Analogous colors" provided on new-age color wheels (RGB, CMYK, CIA Lab, CIA UV) I'm disappointed with the result. The old RBY (red blue yellow) still creates the best result (pleasing & colors look good side by side), but I'm still convinced the base colors (exact tones/hues) used in it aren't perfect. Therefore I want to create my own color system/wheel based on different hues.

Explanation: A 12-hour color wheel follows a fixed step around the wheel. If the base colors do not use the perfect color tone, a fixed step provides you with the wrong color. As a result, the 12-hour wheel does not look as pleasant.

We need to reposition the colors using different base colors to create better distances between them, it would be helpful to create the wheel based on 2 colors aligned at the top and bottom of the wheel. Following this method would produce 2 gradients instead of 3.

I was thinking about using Yellow and the real complementary violet/purple as those 2 base colors 12 o clock and 6 o clock. The goal is to create all main colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, ~cyan, dark violet, ~brighter violet. I understand you can't get all main colors by simply mixing yellow with purple, but I'm sure with enough creativity we can find out what colors actually are on the other sides of the wheel, but it's not allowed to use one of the new-age color wheels mentioned above for calculations/trial and error. Mixing in real life is the closest we can get to a harmonious wheel, those colors consist of red, yellow, and blue, and we only need to find the correct tones.

The ideas I have so far:

  • Temporarily we can use red and blue from a color wheel like RYB or NCS and mix/blend it into our base colors. If we repeat this multiple times with blended colors and base colors we could get close to the real tone of red/blue.
  • Another way could be to mix the base colors with colors from RYB/NCS, using one color of the first colors produced in the gradient. Now we can repeat the steps mentioned above to blend the colors into our base colors.
  • Another way could be to trial and error mix red and blue until we get the exact hue of our purple base color, so we could limit the possible reds and blues.
  • Might there exist a way to calculate distances from the wavelengths (visible spectrum)?
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2 Answers 2

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Color wheels are not an artistic expression, they are a tool to model of how light (RGB, HSV/HSL and other color models) or paints and inks (YMC, the Munsell system and other color systems) are perceived by human observers. In a metaphorical sense the color wheel is to the artist what the table of elements is to the chemist. Chemists don't just sort the table of elements differently because "it would look more balanced". Artist don't sort the color wheel differently because the common order represents valuable information about how adjacent or opposing colors behave.

Artists may create different color wheels (or other mixing tables) to use as a reference during their work. their goal isn't to make it look pleasing, but to document how their particular paints behave when mixed together. Since no paint is of one pure color without additives or impurities, every type and brand of color behaves differently.

Here's a great example from this post by Virginia Sumner. She created 6 small color wheels with 6 different brands of acrylic paint to check how they mix. Click the image to enlarge.
6 color wheels created with different brands of paint

The most obvious differences are seen in purple. Some paints created a muddy brown instead of purple, others created a lighter tone. None of them are what I'd call "purple" because the pigments of the paints simply don't reflect pure purple light.

How I understand your question, your goal is to create a pleasing artistic representation of the color wheel instead of a tool. Doing this by only mixing primary colors is extremely hard and (in my personal opinion) should be done with CMY inks instead of paints, because they produce the "cleanest", most vibrant mixed colors. BTW that's exactly how inkjet printers work.

My advice is to use as many paints as you need to make your color wheel look pleasing. Mixing paints almost never yields a perfect result because pigments don't behave like pure wavelengths of light and paint contains additional substances that can interact and change the tone of the color.

If the key aspect of your color wheel is harmonics, maybe have a look at the Natural and the Munsell color systems.

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  • Im using mixbox to simulate mixing real pigments, natural color system seem to give the best result according a few peoples opinions. I made a comparison for you here imgur.com/a/5vS2auo Feb 3, 2023 at 9:06
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    @user5441400: you mix two different topics here: the colors you see on the computer screen (which are just simple basic RGB) and real life paints. It is known that printing changes colors, even if only slightly. What you see on the screen is never what you see on paper. And that happens BEFORE we start talking about illusions, hallucinations, color associations... The subject of colors is very fascinating, but also not so simple.
    – virolino
    Feb 3, 2023 at 9:18
  • @user5441400 The Wikipedia article of the Natural color system I linked states: "The aim of NCS is to define colors from their visual appearance, as they are experienced by human consciousness. Other color models, such as CMYK and RGB, are based on an understanding of physical processes, how colors can be achieved or "made" in different media." Which sounds exactly like what you want. The physical properties of the color are less important than the human perception of it.
    – Elmy
    Feb 3, 2023 at 11:27
  • Yes NCS looks convincing but still isnt what im loooking for, because they create their wheel with 4 primary colors and one of that is green. But when using their red, blue, yellow base colors the result is pretty good, like shown in the image posted above. Im looking for a trial and error / mathematical solution, not subjectively choosen colors. Feb 3, 2023 at 14:48
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Can you create a harmonious color wheel?

Probably, depending on how functional you need it to be.

A conventional 12-hour color wheel is really just a block diagram arranged a circle. It uses the placement geometry of the 12 divisions to show relationships between the colors. The spectral spacing of those colors around the wheel is distorted to force primary colors and complements into their locations on the diagram.

The gradients between the primary colors on the wheel are just artifacts of this process. The color distances around the wheel look like whatever they look like as a result. The wheel, when used in the conventional way, wasn't intended as a tool for accurately representing the color distribution of the spectrum, let alone identifying harmonious colors.

If the color wheel is built on true primary colors, it can perform a number of functions. Complementary colors are across from each other, with the black or white point in the middle. The primary colors can be used to create pure desired colors. You can get a sense of whether any secondary colors might be reproduced poorly by those base colors. etc.

You can use the format of the color wheel to plot other combinations of base colors that aren't true primaries and see how they work together, but it would have more limited use. It couldn't perform at least some of those functions.

If you didn't care about most of those functions, you could just use the format to show a circular progression of colors for some other purpose, like a harmonious color scheme. (Depending on the scheme, some of the wheel's features could function.)

But consider whether the impetus for this effort is focused in the right place. Is the purpose to create a harmonious scheme of 12 colors, or a system for producing harmonious colors. I'll come back to that later.

Are the ideas in the question on-track to create a harmonious color wheel?

Again, that depends on how functional you need the color wheel to be. Some input on specific points:

  • Limit of two base colors The question suggests starting with two base colors and then using various mechanisms to fill in the other colors. True primary colors, by definition, cannot be made by mixing other colors. So this approach can't be used to create a conventional color wheel, at least one that can perform all of its functions. The question suggests workarounds, which will be discussed below.

    The color choice of yellow and purple doesn't really give you two primaries. If you are starting from a RYB base, each of those colors needs to contribute. Purple = all primaries except yellow, so you sort of have just one primary color in addition to black. But that does serve as an anchor point, opening up the wheel to more flexible placement of the other colors.

  • Blend red and blue with base colors: You can't get to a pure color if you've already blended in something else. You can keep increasing the amount of red or blue so the proportion of the something else is lower, but the something else will always be an impurity. This approach is kind of cheating on an artificial constraint you imposed.

    Basically, any color in your model, that needs to be a pure building block color, must be either in the model as a base color, or creatable from true primary colors in the model. You need red and blue in the model. Adding them to something else and then trying to get rid of the something else doesn't serve a purpose. Just put them in the model cleanly.

    The important thing is getting the right colors in the right places on the wheel. The idea of starting with a 2-color base (really a single primary), is a mechanism to give you more freedom in assigning colors to the other positions on the wheel. Once the wheel is completed, it isn't all that relevant how you created it; it will be a finished tool. Use any method at your disposal; don't artificially constrain yourself.

  • Blend external colors to build gradients: This is essentially the same as the previous bullet. You can build gradients this way, but you can never get to the pure color. The model needs to start with the two pure color endpoints and then create the gradient in between.

  • Trial and error mixing: This sounds like the idea is to work "offline" to create the perfect color, then plug it into the model. Sure, that could be a way to create/select a color. It would be faster to do it mathematically, but your objective is "looks good", and there isn't a math function for that. Trial and error is a logical way to get to "looks good".

  • Calculate color distances from the wavelengths: This sounds like relating the color distribution to the spectrum, which is in some of the suggestions I'll mention below. That seems like a great place to start. But there's a crazy twist on this one.

    Color actually exists only as an internal sensation. The vision system translates light wavelengths to create it. So your perception of color is based on wavelengths, ergo, color equals wavelengths. Oooh, I finally got to use "ergo" in a sentence. The mathematical color models abstract away the wavelengths. So if you want to build your model on top of, or with the aid of, an existing color model, you'll need an additional mechanism to relate it back to wavelengths.

If you don't need to force certain colors into certain geometric positions on the wheel, there are all kinds of things that may improve the harmony of the displayed colors, or at least would be avenues to explore.

  • You can think of a conventional color wheel as the continuous color spectrum wrapped into a circle, then distorted to forcibly center the primary colors. Then it displays a 12-color resolution of it. Using proportions that more accurately represent the spectrum may look more natural. Wrap the color spectrum in a circle, superimpose the wheel on it, align it as desired, and make each position the color centered there.

  • Building on the previous bullet, you ought to be able to rotate the wheel so it is centered on different colors. In fact, if you just overlay the wheel on the actual spectrum, I'm guessing that color complements wouldn't be aligned, and you're playing with color spacing anyway. There wouldn't be a special consideration in using the centered colors. That would provide some flexibility in the exact colors to select.

  • The gist of the objective is to get better distances between the colors. There are a number of ways to do that. For example, find better colors for the positions on the wheel, find better positions for the colors, and/or increase the number of positions (you mentioned in chat that the number of positions needs to be 12, so that option wouldn't apply).

Can a harmonious color wheel be used to produce harmonious colors?

(I'll refer to the color wheel producing colors, but really it's producing colors from base colors of the color wheel.) Any color wheel can be used to produce harmonious colors, just select harmonious colors to produce. Assuming the color wheel is built on a reasonable collection of base colors, it can create all kinds of colors.

Consider that almost the entire spectrum can be represented in the existing color models using three primary colors. All the colors are in there. Some look good together and some don't. The color model and color wheel let you create them all, regardless of how they look together; they're all just colors. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

The stated objective is to identify colors that look good together. The reference to a new color system suggests that, rather than simply a single pallet of harmonious colors on the color wheel, the objective is a tool that produces only colors that look good together because of its base colors.

The project is focusing on the tools that create all the colors and trying to make the tool, itself look good. That suggests that if the tool looks good, any colors it creates will look good together. But consider that if you were going to put up some shelves and wanted them to look good, it wouldn't accomplish that objective by painting the screwdriver a nice color.

Colors that are not primary colors can be created multiple ways, mixing different combinations of primary and secondary colors. To produce the target color, it doesn't matter how the true primary colors are combined in the base colors as long as the mix contains the right totals. That's why, for example, you can produce brown from red + green, red + blue + yellow, orange + blue, purple + yellow, etc. As long as the base colors in your model contain the needed true primary colors, the appearance of the color wheel doesn't really make a practical difference (other than the purity with which it can produce the desired colors).

By creating a tool that looks good, you're replacing a model based on true primary colors with a model based on secondary colors. That greatly reduces your ability to create pure desired colors because your base colors are true primary colors that are already adulterated with additional colors.

So this approach only hobbles your ability to create colors. It doesn't help with an objective of producing colors that look good together (unless the idea is to create a good looking pallet and then use that to identify rules that could be applied more broadly).

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  • "Blend external colors to build gradients", "Limit of two base colors" Your right about the issues, through impurities we cant reach the real color. When creating the idea i was thinking of manipulating the value through increasing saturation with software&tools. But yes we dont know what the saturation would look like witouth calculating it. Feb 4, 2023 at 19:55
  • "Limit of two base colors", "Trial and error mixing" its true that you cant mix the missing primaries in a conventional way. But its necessary to see my idea from a different perspective. Lets assume the color spectrum would contain only of 3 reds and 3 blues. As we have already the mixxed color (purple), we can try mix red1 with blue1 check if the color results in our purple, no ? -> failues&continues - yes ? -> success. The only issue with this idea is, that we recieve multiple success and only one is the "real" combination with the right distance to yellow. (continue below) Feb 4, 2023 at 19:56
  • There might be a formula/mathematical way to calculate the distance from blue to red and find the same combination with equal distance to yellow. Feb 4, 2023 at 19:56
  • The wavelengths/photon energy is an idea i need to check. The issue here is colors between red and purple are gapped and we dont know the actual distance from this gap. Aswell in my opinion the visible spectrum is somehow stretched and cant be used with proportion 1:1. It would be necessary to create a formula to fix this issue. (if you look at a rainbow for example it does not follow the same distance as the visible spectrum) Feb 4, 2023 at 20:00
  • @user5441400, there isn't actually purple in the spectrum. Red goes to infrared. Blue goes to violet then ultraviolet. Purple is an optical illusion, the sensation the brain creates when it sees both red and blue. A good starting point might be how the existing color models calculate it.
    – fixer1234
    Feb 4, 2023 at 20:20

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