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Cracking the colour wheel, part one

I know some scrapbookers who swear by the colour wheel and keep one in their crop bag at all times. I know them…but I am not one of them. My own default system is one of gut feeling…of looking at combinations and thinking ‘something lighter’, ‘something darker’, ‘something warmer’, ‘something cooler’ until I finally settle on something that seems to work. But the colour wheel intrigues me for all it seems to hold: it seems a bit unnatural to my brain that there could be a mathematical way to discuss colour. Essentially that’s what the colour wheel is: a construction that has already done all the maths for you and leaves you with something that is shockingly easy to use. That’s what those scrapbookers promised me. So here’s what I’ve learned on my quest to crack the colour wheel…for scrapbooking purposes, of course! Today, we’ll get started with the basics.

Primary Colours
Apparently, the colours you learned at school will show your age. I learned the primary colours were red, blue and yellow: the colours you couldn’t create by combining the other crayons in the pack. I’m hoping some of you also learned this set of primary colours because otherwise…I am going to feel old all on my own.

Red, blue and yellow give us a sort of spiky colour wheel that looks something like this:

using the colour wheel for scrapbooking

If we keep thinking of crayons, this version of the colour wheel starts to make sense: mix red + yellow, get orange; mix blue + yellow, get green; mix red + blue, get violet. That seems simple enough, and moves us easily to the next element of the colour wheel.

Secondary Colours
Ahem. Secondary colours is the official name for the colours you get when you mix the primaries. So if your primaries are red, blue and yellow, your secondaries are green, orange and violet. I have no idea why I learned primary colours as a definition at school and never, ever heard the term secondary colours until I got into scrapbooking. (And if you learned secondary colours when you were 6, then you are fabulous and had cool teachers!)

Slot the primary colours in a triangle shape, add the secondary colours in their relevant spot and then adjust the spots in between to show the transition from one colour to the next, and suddenly the colour wheel’s construction makes total sense:

using the colour wheel for scrapbooking

and those extra colours that were added in have a name too: tertiary colours. Presto—now I know what everything is called. But I still don’t know how to use the darned thing!

One last thing before we move on to using the colour wheel for our pages: you know how I said the red/blue/yellow primary combination could show your age? Well, it turns out that what works for crayons doesn’t work for the entire world. Like it doesn’t work particularly well for light, and this funny little invention called the colour television set made people spend huge amounts of time trying to get the colour science just right so we could move away from the colour tv that showed everything in a muted yellow haze and up to those scarily lifelike plasma screens that exist now. The same science also goes for cameras and why you can see a different quality from film to digital. So now there are many people who refer to the primary colours as red, green and blue. But the same science for those applications doesn’t apply to the technology of printing, where the primary colours are a slightly funky cyan, magenta and yellow (something that might look familiar from putting coloured inks in your printer). But it turns out, no matter which combination you use as the primary colours, the wheel works exactly the same way, and since we are not building a plasma screen television, inventing a new digital camera or constructing a printer from scratch…we don’t have to worry at all about the science of which colours are the ‘real’ primary colours. (But hey – it’s interesting and it might earn you points in a pub quiz some day!)

So part one has us cracked on the terminology…part two – coming up tomorrow – goes from this trivia to actually put the wheel into action on our pages.

And coming up in just a bit: today’s colour challenge and prize!


03 June 2009

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8 Comments for Cracking the colour wheel, part one

  1. Cat Says:

    I’m loving the science! Thanks for the brainy stuff…

  2. Marilyn Says:

    Hi, I really like your blog. Keep up the good work!

    We learnt red, yellow and blue as the primary colours. And then red, green and blue are the primary colours of light.

  3. Bev Stephenson Says:

    Clearly blue and yellow make green, so green can’t be a primary colour. Or does this mean I am extremely old???? (Well, if you are old, I must be an ancient monument!)

  4. Rosie Says:

    Pst! Shim, your inner geek is showing! (I love this post).

  5. Alison Says:

    I am a colour wheel freak. I even use one as my avatar on some websites. (And I teach my classes about secondary colours, too!)

  6. Lynn Says:

    Sounds like we had the same art teacher!

  7. anne Says:

    That is such an interesting post! I’ve never used a colour wheel in scrapping – always gone with my gut instinct. But I did learn about primary and secondary colours at school, but not tertiary. I can’t quite work out whether that makes me old or not?!!

  8. Amy Abbott Says:

    The hues you learned at school will demonstrate your age. I took in the essential hues were red, blue and yellow the hues you couldn’t make by joining different colored pencils in the pack. I’m trusting some of you likewise took in this arrangement of essential hues.

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