You've found a pattern you love, but you're not so crazy about the colors in the knitted sample. You have an idea of what you'd like the main color to be, but you're stumped when it comes to the right contrasting colors. Would the red trim really work with a violet body? Are green stripes entirely appropriate with brown? And that's precisely where this handy-dandy pocket-sized color wheel comes in.
The Wheel Thing?
First off, this isn't the most elaborate color wheel out there. Nancy's Knit Knacks has one for $17.99 that comes with a 22-page softcover book by Nancy Shroyer called "How to Select Color Palettes for Knitting and other Fiber Arts."
But in this case, I'm talking about a much more basic, Number 2 pencil of color wheels. It's made by Staedtler, the same folks who keep us well-stocked with mechanical pencils, erasers, and protractors in high school.
The color wheel measures approximately 5 1/4 inches across and is made from reasonably heavy duty laminated paper stock. It's sold at most major office supply stores for under $4—I found mine at Staples and paid $3.50. You can also find it online at Du-All.
What You See
Both sides of the wheel have smaller rotating circles that are secured in the center by a brass grommet. On the front side you have the traditional color wheel, with 12 colors radiating around the edge of the wheel. They represent the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), secondary colors (what happens when two primary colors are mixed—namely orange, green, and violet) and tertiary colors (what happens when a primary and secondary color are mixed—namely red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet).
Look closely at the wheel and you'll discover that it's jammed with helpful tips and information. It's not all just in colors, either. They also show grayscale samples ranging in value from 100% black to 100% white—because yes, even grays can vary in intensity and harmony with one another.
A cool extra feature on the front—probably for painters?—lets you see what a color would look like if you added red, yellow, blue, white, or black. This could be helpful if you're blending fibers prior to spinning, or if you're working very fine colorwork and want a general sense of what the final project will look like from 100 yards away.
Turn over the wheel and you have more of the same colors radiating around the edges. But you also have bands of varying tints, tones, and shades for each of the major colors. In the center, you have the arrows to help you find a complementary, split complementary, triad, or tetrad color combination for your chosen color. Or, in English, you have arrows that'll help you find colors that work together.
In teensy tiny font you can read more about what you're seeing. What a monochromatic color is, what analogous colors are, what an achromatic color scheme is, how light and distance play into the perception of color. And, of course, the complementary colors, split complements, diads, triads, and tetrads are also explained. The words sound big, but fundamentally this is a very easy tool to use.
Mind you this is just a small pocket tool, this isn't the end-all resource for color. Besides the color wheel from Nancy's Knit Knacks, if you really want to understand color theory from the inside out, especially as it relates to fiber, you'll want to read Deb Menz's Color Works: The Crafter's Guide to Color. But if you just need a portable confidence-booster for quick decisions on the fly, at $3.50 a pop and available at most major office supply stores, this is a great little find.