Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's color wheel evokes the emotional aspects of color.
While many take today's color wheel and classification system for granted, their evolution is not only dynamic, but provides a glimpse into why and how we choose color. Whether based on RGB, RGV, or CMYK, these tools are vital in determining which colors work together to best fit your vision.
The arrangement of colors around the color circle is often considered to be related to the physical aspects of color, as in the original color circle developed by Sir Isaac Newton. But Newton isn't the only one to create a color system, as many have tried to figure out the most accurate way to classify color.
Throughout the 1700s, artists and scientists worked to create a single color system, but finding one solution that fit everyone's needs was difficult. The classifying of primary colors varied by profession, as each had its own preferred method. In addition, color origin and material choice provided further points of disagreement.
Sir Isaac Newton was credited with developing the original color circle.
Sir Isaac Newton generally gets the credit for creating the color circle; but, in reality, Finnish-born astronomer and priest Aron Sigfrid Forsius developed the first color circle in 1611. Unfortunately for Forsious, his version sat undiscovered in the Royal Library in Stockholm until the 20th century, and the kudos went to Newton.
For his system, Newton used a prism to demonstrate that white light consists of seven colors — red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet — all the colors of the rainbow. He then joined the two ends of the spectrum together to demonstrate the natural progression of colors. In addition, he associated each color with a note on a musical scale, starting with red (the color with the lowest degree of refraction), immediately following D (the note with the lowest frequency). In doing so, Newton created the impression of a repeating cycle of pure colors, equivalent to a musical octave.
Newton's theory was in direct contrast to Aristotle's, which claimed that all color originates from black and white. In fact, Aristotle's concept was widely accepted as true until Newton proved that white could be created by mixing spectral colors and that black was associated with the absence of light.
As Newton had done to Aristotle, German writer and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe countered Newton's theories with his 1810 book, “Theory of Colours." While Newton viewed color as a physical entity related to light, Goethe proposed that color has nothing to do with science or mathematics and that perception is also based upon the object itself, the lighting and how our brains process information. In his study of color, Goethe noticed that blue evokes a feeling of coolness, while yellow has a sense of warmth. Goethe created his version of the color wheel to demonstrate the psychological effect of each color. He divided all the colors into two groups — the plus side (from red through orange to yellow) and the minus side (from green through violet to blue). Colors of the plus side produce excitement and cheerfulness, and colors of the minus side are associated with weakness and unsettled feelings. Based on nature, this more romantic and poetic theory made color an experience, rather than a matter of physics.
In the early 1900s, European painter and teacher Albert H. Munsell embarked on a quest to rationally classify color. His solution was revealed in his 1905 book, “A Color Notation," which was the cornerstone for what we know today as the Munsell Color System. Within this system, color relationships are based on three color dimensions: Hue, Value and Chroma. Hue distinguishes color families, Value differentiates light and dark, and Chroma defines color saturation. In his three-dimensional system, Value is a vertical scale of neutrals and grays, with Hue as the horizontal Equator representing the band of color families, and the gradations of saturation (i.e., Chroma) moving horizontally outward from the center. Munsell's revolutionary system assigned a 0 to 10 numeric value to each of these dimensions, bringing order and consistency to color design. Because of Munsell's work, we have a consistent, systematic process for specifying color.
Around the mid-1900s, Swiss color and art theorist Johannes Itten, who was teaching at the School of Applied Arts in Weimar, Germany (also known as the “Bauhaus"), developed a modified color wheel based on “color chords." This theory was based on a primary triad consisting of red, yellow and blue, along with 12 varying hues.
Itten's color wheel recognized the subjective feelings associated with color, as well as the psychological and emotional values of colors. Itten's theory also regarded color from every angle — philosophic, religious, psychic and physical. For example, rooms painted yellow are often considered happy or energetic, while spaces painted blue tend to feel cold or tranquil.
Johannes Itten developed a color wheel based on color chords, which more clearly identifies complementary and triadic colors.
In his book, “The Art of Color," Itten outlines the details of his theory, which remains strongly influential for artists and designers to this day. He wrote, “Color is life, for a world without color seems dead. As a flame produces light, light produces color. As intonation lends color to the spoken word, color lends spiritually realized sound to form."
Throughout time, color theory and the color wheel have undergone a great metamorphosis, and the systems today are the result of centuries of work. Putting these systems into practice, today's designers have varied backgrounds with color theories and color systems. In addition, some have fine arts experience and design education, which provide great exposure to each of these systems.
Many designers rely on paint companies, as these relationships tend to be the initial foray — other than formal schooling — into color training. In the end, you and your client want the best outcome so, regardless of which system you favor, instinct and experience play a vital role in harnessing the power and beauty of color.
For a more in-depth look at the history of color theory, we highly recommend Sarah Lowengard's “The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe" (Columbia University Press, 2008).