The Colour Wheel

The colour wheel is an essential guide for colourists and in this post we look at why its such an invaluable salon tool.

The colour wheel, sometimes called the colour star or circle, is an important tool used to manipulate colour. As the subtractive colour model is being used here, the primary colours are cyan, magenta and yellow. However, as pure cyan and magenta are difficult to achieve, the nearest colours, blue and red, are used. Most artists adopt this colour palette, with red, yellow and blue as the primary colours.

By combining these primary colours, the secondary colours become green (blue + yellow), orange (red + yellow) and violet (red + blue). These can be arranged in a six-segment circle to form the colour wheel.

When exactly the same intensity of colour is combined from opposite colours in the colour wheel, they cancel each other out. Different strengths of colour intensity will have a more subtle effect. For example, adding violet to a predominantly yellow tone creates a mix of colour that absorbs the yellow wavelength of the light spectrum. This is particularly useful to the hairdresser and is often referred to as compensatory or complementary colour.

The Colour Wheel in Modern Hairdressing
The colour wheel has evolved with modern hairdressing practice in order to fit in with the colour systems and terminology in use today. To this end, different names are used for some of the colours. These are more in keeping with the actual result of adding, for example, a blue tone to the hair. The result in this case would be a toned-down matt finish, not bright blue hair!

  • Yellow = Gold
  • Orange = Copper
  • Red/Purple = Violet
  • Blue/Olive/Green = Matt
  • Grey/Blue-Violet = Cendre
  • Grey/Violet = Ash

Within the modified colour wheel (Schwarzkopf Professional Colour Wheel), colours indicated on the left (green, blue, violet) are referred to as cold/cool, matt colours, whilst the warm colours on the right (yellow, orange, red) are called fashion colours. The latter are brighter, glossier and more popular in today’s fashions.

So far, neutral colours have not been discussed. These include all the tones that are considered natural hair colours. Natural hair colour is a mix of chromatic colour (pure colours found within the colour wheel) and achromatic colour (black, white and the resulting grey tones). Within the colour wheel model neutral colours theoretically exist at the centre of the wheel.