The Colour Wheel – Theories and Evolution

evolution of the colour wheel

The colour wheel is more than just a circle of colours, it is science, it is philosophy.

Colour categories and physical specifications of colour are also associated with objects or materials based on their physical properties such as light absorption, reflection, or emission spectra. By defining a colour space, colours can be identified numerically by their coordinates.
When the eye sees a colour, it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale.
— Goethe, Theory of Colours


Colour derives from the spectrum of light (distribution of light power versus wavelength) interacting in the eye with the spectral sensitivities of the light receptors.

In traditional colour theory, primary colours are the 3 pigment colours that cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colours. Secondary colours are colours formed by mixing primary colours. While tertiary colours are colours formed by mixing a primary and a secondary colour. That’s why the hue is a two word name, such as blue-green, red-violet, and yellow-orange.

PrintModern Colour wheel

As an illustrative model, artists typically use red, yellow, and blue primaries arranged at three equally spaced points around their color wheel. The arrangement of colors around the color circle is often considered to be in correspondence with the wavelengths of light, as opposed to hues, in accord with the original color circle of Isaac Newton. Modern color circles include the purples, however, between red and violet. Colour scientists and psychologists often use the additive primaries, red, green and blue; and often refer to their arrangement around a circle as a color circle as opposed to a color wheel.

The Colour Wheel from Newton to Itten

Sir Isaac Newton developed the first circular diagram of colours in 1666. His work with white light led him to the discovery of the visible spectrum of light. Newton observed the way each colour of light would bend as it passed through the prism. “ROY G BIV” was the result of Newton’s discovery. His experiments led to the theory that red, yellow and blue were the primary colours from which all other colours are derived. While that’s not entirely true, it’s still influential in the colour wheels developed in the early 1800s as well as the colour wheel currently used today.


Newton’s colour circle, from Opticks of 1704, showing the colours correlated with musical notes

Moses Harris was an English entomologist and engraver born in 1730, drawing and engraving illustrations for books.
In his book Natural System of Colours (1769-1776), he examined the work of Isaac Newton while trying to reveal the multitude of colours that can be created from the three basic ones (red, blue and yellow). Harris wanted to understand the relationships between the colours and how they were coded. He tried to explain the principles by which further colours can be produced from those basic colours. He also showed that black is formed by superimposition of the three basic colours.

Mimicking the spread of light from a source, Harris placed the pure colours at the centre of his circle and the lightest at the outer edge.

Louis Bertrand Castel published a criticism of Newton’s spectral description of prismatic colour in which he observed that the colours of white light split by a prism depended on the distance from the prism, and that Newton was looking at a special case. It was an argument that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe later developed in his Theory of Colour (1810), his treatise on the nature, function, and psychology of colours.


Castel’s 1740 comparison of Newton’s spectral colour description with his explanation in terms of the interaction of light and dark, which Goethe later developed into his Theory of Colours.

One of Goethe’s most radical points was a refutation of Newton’s ideas about the colour spectrum, suggesting instead that darkness is an active ingredient rather than the mere passive absence of light.

“Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of colour… Colour itself is a degree of darkness.”

Unlike Newton, Goethe’s concern was not so much with the analytic treatment of colour, as with the qualities of how phenomena are perceived. But perhaps his most fascinating theories explore the psychological impact of different colours on mood and emotion.


Colour wheel designed by Goethe in 1809

Philosophers have come to understand the distinction between the optical spectrum, as observed by Newton, and the phenomenon of human colour perception as presented by Goethe.
At Goethe’s time, it was generally acknowledged that colourless (white) light is split up into its components colours when directed through a prism.

“Along with the rest of the world I was convinced that all the colours are contained in the light; no one had ever told me anything different, and I had never found the least cause to doubt it, because I had no further interest in the subject.
But how I was astonished, as I looked at a white wall through the prism, that it stayed white! That only where it came upon some darkened area, it showed some colour, then at last, around the window sill all the colours shone… It didn’t take long before I knew here was something significant about colour to be brought forth, and I spoke as through an instinct out loud, that the Newtonian teachings were false,” Goethe wrote.

Philipp Otto Runge was considered among the best German Romantic painters. His interest in colour being as a natural result of his work as a painter and of having an inquisitive mind. Among his accepted creeds was that “as is known, there are only three colours, yellow, red, and blue” (letter to Goethe of July 3, 1806). His goal was to establish the complete world of colours resulting from mixture of the three, among themselves and together with white and black. He arrived at the concept of the colour sphere sometime in 1807, as indicated in his letter to Goethe of November 21 of that year, by expanding the hue circle into a sphere, with white and black forming the two opposing poles.
A colour mixture solid of a double-triangular pyramid had been proposed by Tobias Mayer in 1758, a fact known to Runge. His expansion of that solid into a sphere appears to have had an idealistic basis rather than one of logical necessity. With his disk colour mixture experiments of 1807, he hoped to provide scientific support for the sphere form. His manuscript, written in 1808 describing the colour sphere contained an illustrated essay on rules of colour harmony and colour harmony written by Henrik Steffens.

Phillip Otto Runge 3-dimensional colour spheres

Hand-coloured plate showing two different views of the surface of the sphere as well as horizontal and vertical slices showing the organization of its interior.

Schiffermüller,_1772Ignaz Schiffermüller’s colour wheel, 1772


Farbkreis by Johannes Itten (1961). He furthers the ideas of Adolf Hölzel’s colour wheel in his book The Art of Colour

Article written for the THRIVE blog by Efua Dufu.