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Color Relationships & the Color Wheel

Six Colors

There are six main colors in photography: red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow.

When you use the Hue slider in a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, the colors are in the same order as those on the color wheel below.


Color Wheel




255 0 0




255 0 255




255 255 0




0 0 255



0 255 0




0 255 255


Primary & Complementary

(Secondary) Colors

The six colors are divided into two categories, additive and subtractive.

Additive Colors Subtractive Colors
Red, green, blue Cyan, magenta, yellow

The additive colors, red, green, and blue, are also called the primary colors.

Cyan, magenta, and yellow, the subtractive colors, are also called the complementary or secondary colors.

Go to Additive v. Subtractive Colors.

Complementary Color Examples


The colors of an afterimage are the complementary colors to the flag.

Therefore, if you stare at yellow, the afterimage will be blue.

Stare at the lower-right star on the flag for thirty seconds.

Then, look at the x in the white rectangle below the flag.

The afterimage of the flag has the normal colors of the flag.


Flag Made from Complimentary Colors


Afterimage of a Normal Flag

Here are some other examples of how color in our visual systems is similar to color in photography.

Dan Flavin

Dan Flavin created sculptures and installations using florescent light fixtures.

As you walk through Untitled (To you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), below, your eyes become fatigued to the green.

When you leave the gallery, the world looks too magenta, the complementary color to green.



Disney's Epcot theme park has magenta sidewalks due to their understanding of color.

After looking at the sidewalks, your eyes become magenta fatigued.

Then, when you look at the grass, it looks more green, as green is complementary to magenta.


Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are the colors between the primary and complementary colors.

There are twenty-four colors on the tertiary color wheel.

Adjacent Colors

You can make a primary color by mixing its two adjacent primary colors on the color wheel.

For example, red is made up of yellow and magenta, the two colors that are adjacent to red.


Opposite Colors Cancel Each Other

In human relationships, opposites may be attracted to each other.

In color, opposites cancel each other out.

Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, when added together, cancel each other.

For example, if you increase red, the color opposite to red, cyan, decreases.

Red Cyan
Green Magenta
Blue Yellow


Here's a mnemonic for the color relationships.

Red Corvette BY General Motors

Here's a visualization of the above mnemonic.



Red Corvette BY General Motors

Hexadecimal Color

The figures in the small white box above are the color defined using hexadecimal color.

RGB color is used in Photoshop Elements.

Red, defined using RGB color is 255 0 0.

The first threesome of numbers define red, the next threesome define green, and the last threesome, blue.

The numbers can be from 0 to 255.

Hexadecimal color is used mostly for website design.

Red, defined using hexadecimal color is FF0000.

The numbers or letters run from 0 to 9, and then from A to F.

The first two numbers define red, the next pair define green, and the last pair, blue.

Whether you use hexadecimal color or RGB color, the colors are the same.

The notation is the only difference.

RGB Color: 255 0 0

Hexadecimal Color: FF0000

RGB Color: 0 255 0

Hexadecimal Color: 00FF00

RGB Color: 0 0 255

Hexadecimal Color: 0000FF

You can use either RGB color or hexadecimal color in the Color Picker window.

If you haven't already done so, go to RGB Color and Color Picking.