A Brief History of the Color Wheel

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The following is an excerpt from one of the newest HOWU courses: Color Theory for Designers led by Rachel Olson. Learn how to make wise color decisions for your future design projects. Gain a better understanding of color and how to apply color that will take your design projects to the next level.

The Basics of Color: History of the Color Wheel

Artists invented the first pigments – a combination of soil, animal fat, burnt charcoal, and chalk – as early as 40,000 years ago, creating the basic palette of 5 colors including red, yellow, brown, black and white. Since then, the history of color has been one of ongoing discovery through both exploration and scientific advancement.

New pigments accompanied the development of art history’s greatest movements from Renaissance to Impressionism, as artists continually experimented with colors never seen before.

These historical benchmarks continue to inspire an evolution – whether building upon earlier creative efforts or defying the work of one’s predecessor. One of these historical benchmarks that artists still rely on today is the color wheel.

The renown mathematician Sir Isaac Newton invented the first color wheel. While studying white light reflecting off prisms, he noticed that the light reflected a spectrum of colors. Noting down the different hues, he believed the rainbow of colors shared a harmonious relationship. Following that train of thought, he compared the hues to music to discover the harmonious relationship between each hue. He identified each hue with a corresponding musical note. The then arranged those musical notes into a square, and then finally placed the colors on a rotating disk to see how they interact with each other visually. And that’s the story of the ideation behind the first color wheel. (Fun fact: When you spin the color wheel, the human eye will only see white as the colors blend together.)

color wheel rachel olson

For fellow history and design nerds, Newton’s publication of his study of light and color is public domain material. You may read his revelations on color via his book Opticks, found here: https://archive.org/details/opticksoratreat00newtg…

Another great resource on color, from the history to common conundrums of color, listen to RadioLab’s podcast on color:

Also check out more fascinating history of the color wheel in the below articles. The writer, Jude Stewart, analyzes the many renditions of the color wheel throughout history.

  1. The Wonderful Color Wheel: Part 1

  2. The Wonderful Color Wheel: Part 2

  3. The Wonderful Color Wheel: Part 3

Itching for more color theory? Enroll in the HOWU course today! Brush up on your color knowledge, learn color associations and meanings, discover the relationship between color and culture, plus so much more.

color wheel