Why do traditional color wheels have yellow opposite to violet (purple), whereas graphics programs such as Adobe Photoshop have yellow opposite to blue?

Yellow opposite violet (purple):

enter image description here

Yellow opposite blue:

enter image description here

  • 4
    One is a subtractive color wheel (CMYK) the other additive (RGB). See here: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/60/…
    – Scott
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 18:44
  • @Scott please post as an answer so we can upvote it. :)
    – DA01
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 18:49
  • @Scott, both color wheels above describe both subtractive and additive colors. How can this be the answer?
    – Xonatron
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 14:57
  • The top wheel has less colors. That should have been a clue for something, if only because there appear to be multiple ways to draw "the" color wheel.
    – Jongware
    Commented Jul 12, 2015 at 15:31

6 Answers 6


The traditional wheel is based on pigments. It's the mix of the primary colors that creates the secondary and tertiary colors in the wheel. That's your first picture.

The second picture is based on the RGB colors and are colors produced by light; they're not "mixed" together and technically don't work the same way as pigments. It might be better to call this wheel a spectrum than a color wheel. By definition they're not really complementary but opposite.

So in general, when people talk about complementary, they still refer to the traditional model: purple and yellow, orange and blue, red and green.

By the way, that "blue" from the RGB wheel is still very close to be a purple in CMYK; but in RGB, it's a blue. The violet on the traditional wheel is also a very pale violet... The wheel below is closer to the real traditional color wheel!

Traditional color wheel complementary colors in paints

Source: www.quora.com/How-do-you-read-the-color-wheel

  • Both color wheels describe both subtractive and additive colors. How can this be the answer?
    – Xonatron
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 15:23
  • 1
    The color gamut is greater with the RGB colors. If you visualize that gamut as a circle, the circle is bigger for RGB, and the opposite color changes position too. Plus, purple is one of those color that isn't "precise" culturally in term of standards. Interesting from Wikipedia: "One curious psychophysical difference between purple and violet is their appearance with an increase in luminance (apparent brightness). Violet, as it brightens, looks more and more blue. The same effect does not happen with purple. This is the result of what is known as the Bezold–Brücke shift."
    – go-junta
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 17:04
  • 2
    "when people talk about complementary, they still refer to the traditional model: purple and yellow, orange and blue, red and green" Becouse people does not study modern color theory, but archaic one.
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:23
  • 1
    Thanks for posting Hatt's color wheel, which is still a good guide to paint-mixing complementaries. I take it that by "closer to a real traditional color wheel" your meaning is that it is closer to a real colorant mixing wheel. Hatt's diagram is of course an early example of a CMY wheel, and was published by Hatt explicitly as a challenge to the traditional (red-yellow-blue) wheel. Some traditional color wheels do place blue-violet opposite yellow, but more commonly the color shown is a middle purple leaning neither to red nor blue, as expected from traditional color theory. Commented Jul 13, 2015 at 1:06
  • A couple of things bother me about the "The Colorist." First, is the word "proposed," and second, the mis-spelling of "complementary" in the caption.
    – Stan
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 5:47

There are different color models which result in different opposites.

One is a subtractive color model (CMYK) -- the top image, where the opposite of yellow is purple. This is for real-world, tangible things like paint, ink, etc.

The other is a additive color model (RGB) -- the bottom image, where the opposite of yellow is blue. This is for light basically, screens, displays, bulbs, etc.

For more information see here: What is the difference between CMYK and RGB? Are there other color spaces I should know?

  • Both color wheels describe both subtractive and additive colors. How can this be the answer?
    – Xonatron
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 14:57
  • Yeap, I totally disagree with Scott this time. One is substractive colors yes, but with an archaic color wheel concept.
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 17:30
  • Whether or not the actual colors are correct, the fact remains one is a subtractive color wheel and the other an additive color wheel.
    – Scott
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 17:47
  • 1
    Another thing. The additive model is the RGB (add light) and the subtractive model is the CMY (absorb-subtract light).
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:19
  • Correct @Rafael I did mix those terms. Corrected.
    – Scott
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:25

Becouse that is a color wheel intended for kids. And its roots are older than a modern understanding in color. Some traditional color paletes for painters also use it, again becouse it is a traditional (but arcaic) understanding of it.

The "modern popular understanding" of color comes with 2 inventions: offset color printing for photography, and color tv. Bofore that you could find textbooks saying that the rainbow has 7 colors.

Still, the quality of the pigments for CMYK printing is evolving to achive more consistent colors. Some years ago the combination of 100 magenta and 100 cyan turned into a more violet color. Now the pigments are better but still you don't achive "pure blue" becouse it is not a linear mathematical proportion.

There are some other color models like Lab that has a scale from yellow to blue and red to green. That aproach is more "organic perception model". But this color wheel is not that case.


Imagine how Painting (and painting materials) evolve (Not an acurate historical explanation, but it still works). At the beginning you had some charcoal to paint a cave. Later you had some earth dust with some deer fat and you had some ocre colors.

Years pass and you find some insects or snails to pure pigments from them.

You have some other pigments from combination from metals etc. The point is you had a limited palete of phisical pigments to use. (A timeline of pigments http://www.webexhibits.org/pigments/intro/history.html)

Time after, when you explain things to your students, there has being a traditional model to combine existent pigments. The models built back then were perceptual and experience based.

For example the Fuchsine (magenta) dye was invented in the XIX Century. It could not make part of a color wheel before that.

All that slow evolution makes that the color theory and color wheels need to evolve.

Popular perception

If you ask general population or a group of kids without any formal theorical understanding, they will say that the primary colors are yellow, blue and red... And the sky will be sky blue, not cyan, and the magenta will be a bright pink.

But again, the traditional color wheel is simply wrong.

Edited again:

The first one is called RYB model. And it is charted as HISTORICAL model... "RYB predates modern scientific color theory". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RYB_color_model I totally agree with that description.

  • While the point about the original color wheel being an oversimplification, the answer to this question is actually Scott's comment. These two color wheels are different because they are referencing entirely different color models.
    – DA01
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 18:48
  • 1
    Mmm. Nop. They are referencing diferent color models, yes. One is a "Traditional Painters" model but it is simply inacurate. Btw. Did you hear Puto is no longer defined as planet? Yeap The understanding of things evolve. ;-)
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 15, 2015 at 18:52
  • 1
    Lol. Again, someone voted down. and no explanation why my answer is wrong. The color wheel is simply WRONG.
    – Rafael
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 17:27
  • 1
    "My car keeps making a noise when I turn left. What's wrong?" --- "The internal combustion engine needs fuel to move the pistons and make the car move." --- While the fact may be true... it has nothing to do with the question being asked.
    – Scott
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:00
  • 2
    People will reject even true statements if the real answer is too far away from what they expect. This is natural as to unlearn what they have now would certainly mean unlearning a lot more than just this piece of the puzzle. If i wanted to be pedantic id just say colors arent organized in a circle so it hardly matters on way or another, what is on the opposite side of a wheel that is in fact a spread out uneven triangle? So your guess is as good as mine ;) +1 anyway
    – joojaa
    Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 23:36

Purple is a very complicated color, because

  1. Purple IS Violet and very few painters can agree on what Violet is.
  2. Many cameras think Violet is Blue, including mine, so if you take a picture of violet it will look blue, and if you put it invert that digitally you will get yellow.
  3. Blue was meant to be Sky blue by Newton, and all what we call Blue, Purplish Blue was all Indigo. Showing again that many of us have a really really hard time distinguishing these colors.

enter image description here

  1. Violets are blue, and true blue looks quite violet if you desaturate it, and since true saturated blue is very bright, it's out of painting gamut/printing gamut, so the blues you do see in real life tend to look quite violet because they are desaturated, and desaturated blue looks violetish.

These violets are true blue(pixel blue is 240 hue, these violets are ~236) by the way(just at 70% saturation).

enter image description here

  1. Both Blue and Violet do a terrible job neutralizing Yellow. Even Digitally, if your Blue is not within ~1% of the hue, you will have a very hard time neutralizing it. Sure it'll look grayish but our eyes are sensitive enough to know it's not truly gray, so you kinda need both Violet and Blue to tune your complement properly unless you're a printer, which doesn't need to worry about neutralizing Yellow because it has Black.

Look to see how tricky it is to neutralize true Yellow(which is incredibly good at absorbing blue light, indicated by how non gray it is on paper compared to most colors) using naive overlaying.

enter image description here

I guess the people who made the diagram would prefer a reddish gray over a greenish gray, or maybe they thought the sienna-like color was good enough for gray, or maybe they found it easier to finish neutralizing it with ultramarine blue(a common neutralizing color), Grays in art can get pretty subjective.

  1. I'd like to take a moment to remind everyone that color perception is very relative and subjective, take a look at the rainbow below,

enter image description here

Notice that there is no red, orange, yellow, blue, nor violet in it, Everything is cyan or green, maybe a tad of cyan-blue.


The intentions of the wheels are totally different. The computer RGB color wheel is created for presenting maximally colorful RGB combinations. It usually starts from red, then R+G mixed, G, G+B mixed, B, B+R mixed and back to R. When the transition is gradual and uniform along the circle, yellow must be the opposite of blue. B is 240 degrees after R and yellow is exactly in the half way from pure R to pure G.

In the next image we have the computer RGB color wheel and the proportions of its RGB numbers as color zone thicknesses of the inner ring.

enter image description here

Your traditional wheel tries to present some of the possible paint mixtures of yellow, red and blue (2 colors at a time) altough the colors are not paint, but computer RGB colors.

In the past generally and among painters even today yellow, red and blue are considered as basic hues which are as far from each other. When we leave between them the same amount (=120 degrees) space in a color wheel, we get this:

enter image description here

Of course the opposite of yellow is exactly in the middle of red and blue due the initial spacing decision.

I hope this at least removes some of the divine glamour of color presentations and proves they are human creations.


The traditional colour wheel, for all its faults, is right about the fact that colourant-mixing complementaries differ from additive complementaries near the yellow-blue axis. RGB "blue" and RGB "yellow" are additive complementaries, and in subtractive mixing of IDEAL colourants (reflecting wavelengths in an all-or-nothing fashion) would also be complementary.

And if you slot together two discs painted with these colours (say, ultramarine blue and a lemon yellow) and spin them quickly together they will neutralize each other, because you are in effect additively mixing the light reflected from the paints.

BUT if you mix the same paints together you get a mid-chroma green, not grey, because the sloping ends of the spectral reflectance curves of the two actual paints have some "green wavelengths" in common. To directly neutralize any given yellow paint requires a mixture of blue and violet paints.

Please see my Fig. 1.9 here: http://www.huevaluechroma.com/001.php

  • David... I apologize with you on one thing. Preparing the arguments to my answer I did not take time to read your page untill now... DANG interesting! I am a pasionate on color, color models, color 3D shapes, color spaces, and I see that you have an interesting document there.
    – Rafael
    Commented Jan 11, 2016 at 22:37
  • I agree with @Rafael! Your page is packed with info and very enlightening. I've spent years looking for the truth about colors and now I'm starting to realize that it's way more complicated that I initially thought. But It's not a bad thing. It shows that knowledge is important, but intuition is needed to "fill in the gaps". I wasn't close to solving the soduko - it didn't have a solution!
    – Wolff
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 20:11

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