brief history of color theories the color wheel
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Brief History of Color Theories/The Color Wheel. Artists develop theories of color relationships in order to create frameworks for understanding how colors relate to one another and how colors mix. In many cases, a circle is the convenient format for observing color relationships. .

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Artists develop theories of color relationships in order to create frameworks for understanding how colors relate to one another and how colors mix. In many cases, a circle is the convenient format for observing color relationships.
the color wheel
The Color Wheel

Our standard color wheel includes twelve steps, made up of three primary colors, three secondary colors, and six tertiary colors (mixtures of primary and secondary colors)


Developed a theory of colors based on observing color in nature. He believed color was perceived through combinations of light and dark

The primary elements of color were: Sunlight, Firelight, Air and Water

Colors were made by mixing light and darkness: red was a mixture of sunlight and darkness.

This explained why the sky turned red at sunrise and sunset—the sun was mixing with the approaching or receding night.

His basic colors were red, yellow, blue, green, violet, black, white and brown

leonardo da vinci
Leonardo da Vinci

Developed his own palette of basic hues, each hue relating to the natural world.


His palette was a spiritual manifestation of the world through paint.

isaac newton 1642 1727
Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Was the first color theorist to approach color from a scientific, rather than spiritual standpoint.

(Mostly. Originally, he observed seven, not six spectral hues, including indigo, possibly basing this on the seven musical tones and the seven spheres of heaven.)

Newton created the first color wheel.

Discovered color was a function of light. Observed the spectral hues when he bent light through a prism.

Because his color system was based on light, his ideas were somewhat theoretical (at the time).

He was never able to reproduce all his theories through paint (for example, mixing all primaries together to create white) because the pigment system works different than the light system does.

johann wolfgang von goethe 1749 1832
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

Reacted against Newton’s theories because they didn’t translate to mixing pigments.

He theorized that color phenomenon happened in the human eye, rather than in white light.

Goethe observed that under strong midday sun, shadows were black or gray, but that in other conditions, cast shadows were the complement of the hue of light.
Richard Diebenkorn

Wayne Thiebaud

And later, to Bay Area Expressionists

goethe s models of color relationships are the six hue color wheel
Goethe’s models of color relationships are: the six-hue color wheel

Which demonstrates primary and secondary colors (depicted as triangles) and complementary relationships (depicted as straight lines.

and the color triangle
…and the Color Triangle

In this model, primary colors (red, yellow, blue) are the points of the triangle, and secondary colors (orange, yellow, green) are on the inside edge of the triangle.

For Goethe, tertiary colors are mixtures of the three colors surrounding them. They are nameless, non specific colors, mixtures of red, violet, and orange, for example.

otto runge
Otto Runge

Attempted a three-dimensional depiction of color, to demonstrate that color was not only a function of hue, but also value and saturation

In his sphere, the equator (center line) was made up of pure saturation colors, and they traveled as tints and shades towards the two poles, which were pure black and pure white.
johannes itten
Johannes Itten
  • Was a teacher at the Bauhaus school in Germany prior to World War II.

A professor of Joseph Albers (who studied simultaneous contrast).

The Bauhaus teachings are the foundation for modern color theory:

Color phenomenon, simultaneous contrast relationships, contrasts of hue, saturation, value.

Shortcomings of the Bauhaus model are that they tend to look at color in a vacuum, without considering it’s relationship to imagery, psychology, or communication.

Joseph Albers

itten s model for color relationships the color star
Itten’s Model for Color Relationships: The Color Star

Itten’s color star is a flattened representation of Runge’s color sphere, allowing the viewer to see all colors, values, and saturation at once.

He favors hard, geometric edges to allow us to perceive the effects colors have on one another in their pure forms.

albert munsell
Albert Munsell

Expanded on Runge’s three-dimensional color model with his COLOR TREE

Munsell’s system began with 5 basic hues:

Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet.

And create a ten-step color wheel

His complementary pairings are:




And Blue—Orange: the only pairing we recognize from the traditional color wheel.

He developed his complementary pairings from after-image observations

In Munsell’s color tree, value is represented along the center axis and saturation is represented across the horizontal axis.

The tree is not symmetrical like the rest of our color models, because colors reach full saturation at different values.

Munsell’s color tree was the basis for the expanded color palettes we work from with digital colors as well as industrial colors
color schemes
Color Schemes

The Color wheel is a helpful tool for observing harmonious relationships between colors called Color Scheme.

monochromatic color scheme
Monochromatic color scheme

One hue, and tints and shades of that hue

analogous color scheme
Analogous color scheme

Colors that lie next to one another on the color wheel

complementary color scheme
Complementary color scheme

A pair of complementary colors---colors that are across from one another on the color wheel

split complementary

One color, and the colors adjacent to it’s complement.

triadic color scheme
Triadic color scheme

Three Colors that are equally spaced on the color wheel

quadratic color scheme
Quadratic Color Scheme

Four colors, equally spaced. Connecting them forms a square

tetradic color scheme
Tetradic Color Scheme

Four colors, forming a rectangle. This arrangement is a set of two complementary pairings.