The History of Color Wheels

Written by wendy strain
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The History of Color Wheels
Colour wheels provide easy reference to colour relationships. (Primary Secondary & Tertiary Colour Wheel image by Sophia Winters from

Although thinkers from as early as Aristotle developed theories regarding the different colours that make up our world, it wasn't until 1660 that Sir Isaac Newton discovered the means of dividing the light rays from the sun. From this point forward, colour theorists have been working to perfect the colour wheel.

The First Color Wheel

According to Roger Blumberg with "Computer Science" magazine, Isaac Newton separated light bands into colour using a prism. (See Reference 1) This technique enabled him to observe the different families of wavelengths spanning from red to violet. From his observations, he developed the first colour wheel. It included the six major shades of the rainbow arranged in relative order to how they separated from the prism.

The History of Color Wheels
The first colour wheel was created based on the light from a prism. (Lumière image by Jef 132 from

Expanding the Wheel

Johanes Wolfgang Goethe took the colour wheel a step further during the 1800s by taking a more psychological approach. Blumberg says Goethe hypothesised that colour had an effect on mood. (See Reference 1) His model was based on a triangle with the colours red, blue and yellow (the primary colours) positioned at the corners. The secondary colours formed inner triangles between the corners and the tertiary colours filled in the gaps.

The History of Color Wheels
Goethe's idea was to focus more on the meaning of colour. (colours image by AGITA LEIMANE from

Today's Color Wheels

Today's colour wheels combine scientific, psychological and now even digital colour. Colour Matters indicates most wheels consist of about 12 colours placed around a circle. They typically refer to the colours that can be achieved in paint rather than light and focus on primary, secondary and tertiary colours. Colour Matters provides a more in-depth review of what these colour rankings mean and how they are established. (See Reference 2)

The History of Color Wheels
Whether simple or complex, today's colour wheels typically refer to paint or ink. (Colour guide to match colours for printing image by Piter Pkruger from

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