The Wonderful Color Wheel: Part 2

Welcome back to my salute to the gorgeous, fallible history of color wheels through the years. The first post on color wheels rolled through the mid-1800s, when Enlightenment-era values of close observation and the scientific method exploded many then-prevalent theories, while simultaneously expanding the flat color wheel into bold new shapes.

Take mathematician Tobias Mayer’s color triangle, first introduced to much hullabaloo in 1758 and shown above in a simplified version by physicist Georg Christian Lichtenberg. Mayer’s clear-eyed premise reflected his quantitative background, while proving remarkably useful for everyday color mixing by working artisans. Mayer began with the notion of three “pure” colors – red, yellow and blue – and chose cinnabar, gamboge, and azurite as the optimal pigments to represent each. He migrated these pure colors to the three corners of a triangle, then filled in the triangle’s body with progressive gradations between these pure shades. Mayer’s original triangle included 12 gradations on each side, representing the maximum degree of variance he believed the human eye could perceive; Lichtenberg slimmed this down to 7 gradations per side. In Mayer’s triangle, one could step from one pure-color corner to the next and know at each step exactly what proportion of red, yellow and blue comprised that color. The triangle’s central block had an exactly equal proportion of red, yellow and blue (r4y4b4, in Mayers’ notation). Mayers’ full color-triangle added a black-and-white axis to this mix, showing how systematic additions of these colors brightened or darkened colors.

All in all, Mayers’ algebra brought his color universe to 819 shades – woefully short of the dizzying range in any modern paint store, but still not too shabby. Mayers’ thinking spawned numerous other color triangles, including the 3-D version pictured below by Johann Heinrich Lambert.

Mayer lives on in our modern incarnations of color as CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black/white). Any crackling cathode-ray television with its glowing color pixels operates more or less according to his precepts.

The painter Philipp Otto Runge was the next German to corner the market on color wheels and their related manifestations. His 1807 model took Mayer’s notion of three “pure” colors, plus black-and-white, and spread these ideas over and inside a 3-D color sphere (complete with cross-sectioning). Goethe gave Runge a conclusive shout-out in his 1810 landmark work, Theory of Colors, but Runge’s color notoriety was short-lived. In 1839, his model gave way to Michel Eugène Chevreul’s hemispherical system (bel0w).

Chevreul arranged his 72 colors in a hemisphere, with similar proportional relationships between shades as those posited by Mayer. The use of black and white as a lightening or darkening agent was alluringly called the “nero” factor. Chevreul’s biggest scientific accomplishments spill beyond his color hemisphere: a past-master of animal fats, he invented an early form of soap and pioneered the study of gerontology while living himself to age 102. He also described a phenomenon now called Chevreul’s illusion: the way two identical colors of different intensities, when placed adjacent to each other, seem brighter at the edge where they join.

In 1900, Albert Henry Munsell’s cylindrical system (above), brought color theory into the twentieth century with an appropriately futuristic visual model. Munsell opted for a three-dimensional cylinder, in which the three axes showed hue, value (lightness or darkness), and chroma (color purity). In quantifying color using these three values, Munsell’s model described colors more scientifically than previous models, which themselves cracked the color wheel concept wide open in favor of more ersatz shapes: Hermann von Helmholtz’s cone in 1860, William Benson’s tilted cube in 1868, and August Kirschmann’s grandiloquent sounding “slanted double-cone” from 1895.

Munsell’s color cylinder was the stake driven in the heart of the history of daffy color wheels. A few models have emerged since Munsell – notably CIELAB and CIECAM2 – but Munsell’s system is still used by, among others, ANSI to identify skin and hair colors for forensic pathology, the USGS for matching soil colors, in prosthodontics for selecting tooth shades for dental restorations, and by breweries for matching beer colors.

Have color wheels rolled entirely out of the historical frame? Mercifully, not quite. COLOURLovers spies unusual color wheels in everyday life, like this panoply arranged by Bright Lights Little City (an online shop specializing in lampshades made of cocktail-umbrellas). In an equally liquid vein, MOMA offers its Color Wheel Stick Umbrella. Design Observer co-founder Jessica Helfand praised the infinity variety of wheels in design in her book Reinventing the Wheel.

However inadequate, scientifically speaking, it is to describe the color-spectrum using a wheel-shaped model, there’s an irresistible fitness about marrying circles with color. As a geometric figure, circles possess a certain strength, a self-contained quality in which a smooth, unperturbed body can be imagined to hold an entire universe. Sometimes the pod will crack, spilling its contents with rampant energy, or maybe the circle holds indefinitely. For an entity as slippery and ubiquitous as color, only a circle can be imagined as a perfect enough shape to contain all of it.

Color theme test by Toxiclibs.

Pantone Colors series by Andy Gilmore

(Again, thanks to Sarah Lowengard’s impressive project The Creation of Color in Eighteenth Century Europe and COLOURLovers’ concise summary of same for great inspiration.)

Check out Part 1 here and Part 3 here.


22 thoughts on “The Wonderful Color Wheel: Part 2

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  3. Babs Loyd

    Thank you for your research into this fabulous subject.  I am intrigued by the 7 colors of the prism discovered by Isaac Newton. Can you explain why the prism includes what he called Indigo, whereas the rainbow has only 6 colors, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet?

  4. Jude Stewart

    Alan: thanks so much for your comment. Here’s a perfect example of that old adage defining journalists as people either brave or foolish enough to educate themselves in public. I wrote this series in stages, one after another, and learned a lot more as I went along – and from what I learned, you’re absolutely correct. Thanks for correcting the public record on this.
    As much as I did learn writing this, I skipped plenty of other figures in the history of color-wheels that seemed less central to the narrative’s main thrust…but I’m sure I didn’t cover them all. Please let me know if you can think of any other folks we should include in this round-up! I would love to reprise it with a part 4.
    Best, Jude

  5. Alan Taylor

    “…Mayer lives on in our modern incarnations of color as CMYK (cyan-magenta-yellow-black/white). Any crackling cathode-ray television with its glowing color pixels operates more or less according to his precepts…”
    This is not strictly true. Mayer lives on exactly as it was with the primaries of Red, Blue and Yellow (RBY) – the only system that works with opaque colour. CMYK is a quite different system designed for transparent printing inks when used on a white surface. Televisions use yet a third system, RGB (red, green, blue) which are the primaries for light. 

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  12. Jude Stewart Post author

    Glad you liked it, folks. Jane, we’re already planning a part 3 of this series soon, to bring the color-wheels history into the present. Ridgeway would make a great addition to that – thanks for the suggestion!

    Muriel and Kit: I’m reading Bright Earth by Phillip Ball right now, an excellent history of colors as pigments. Ball is a science writer, so he’s writing a parallel history of art’s developments as they relate to developments in paints and art-materials. Anyhow, in an early chapter he explains the difference between additive colors and subtractive colors – additive are those colors made by mixing colored lights, subtractive colors are those made by mixing physical pigments. Sometimes the results of color-mixtures between the two are surprisingly divergent, but one theme he mentions is that mixing physical colors (subtractive) always tends to produce darker shades than the original ones. Maybe that explains your dark-purple result…

  13. Muriel Areno

    @Kit: I remember having trouble making purple as a child, not green. The blue and red in my small gouache kit made some dark shade that I did not accept as purple.
    Thanks for this piece. The illustrations are just wonderful.

  14. Jane

    Good articles. Perhaps if there is a third – you would consider Robert Ridgeway who in 1912 published Color Standards and Color Nomenclature – in which he printed 1115 original colors with given names.
    To Kit: Wilcox’s book also discusses the need to understand what comprises a specific yellow and a specific blue so as to predict what type of green will result from the mix.

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  17. Kit Kellison

    I was hoping to see something about the work “Yellow and Blue Do Not Make Green,” by Michael Wilcox. It states that when mixing pigments, that there doesn’t exist a pure yellow and pure blue that will create a pure green. You pretty much have to mix a bluish green with a yellowish green to get a pure green.

  18. Kris

    What a great series. Beautiful, informative snippets. Steve’s perspective is particularly enlightening regarding the Munsell model.
    Thanks for the extensive links for further exploration. For one who is so sensitive to color as I, they provide a delightful journey.

  19. Jude Stewart

    Thanks for your comments, folks. I’m relatively new to this history, so it’s fantastic to get more precise perspectives like Steve’s as to how math, cognition and color theory all comes together. Glad you both enjoyed it!

  20. Steve Linberg

    The Munsell color space is cylindrical only in theory. The human visual system can perceive only part of this space, starting at the neutral core where colors have no hue or chroma, and then radiating outwards to different limits of chroma perception depending on hue and value. Human eyes have more sensitivity to green, yellow and orange wavelengths than red, blue or violet, so we perceive those colors as “light” and we can see more of the high-chroma colors at high (light) values; we perceive blues and violets as darker and the strongest chromas at the lower end of the value range. This results in a lopsided and irregular subset of the theoretical cylinder, “heavy” towards yellow at the light end and towards purple at the low end. Color models that attempt to project the visible color range into perfect shapes like spheres or cylinders distort the perceptual color space; Munsell tried to map out what we could actually see, minimizing distortion in a highly successful effort to be accurate. Describing it as “cylindrical” is an unfortunate error, since the mistaken notion of uniformity of the visible color space is one of the primary errors he was trying to correct.