History Of The Color Wheel

History Of The Color Wheel

The first color wheel has been attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, who in 1706 arranged red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet into a natural progression on a rotating disk. As the disk spins, the colors blur together so rapidly that the human eye sees white. From there the organization of color has taken many forms, from tables and charts, to triangles and and wheels the history.

Using text from Sarah Lowengard's The Creation of Color in Eighteenth-Century Europe we're taking a look at the progression of color organization systems and how the color wheel came to be.
"Number Order Form: Color Systems and Systemization" is only one section of the work. It is is available on an open access/free access at Columbia University Press(click here).

A successful color ordering system requires an appropriate shape, the correct number of colors to include, and the proper medium in which to present its information.

The First Color Organization Systems

Gautier's color-printed picture accompanied one of his many anti-Newtonian publications about color theories. The band of color at the center imitates an illustration in Newton's Opticks but "proves" Gautier's assertion that all colors cannot be found in Newton's spectrum of light.

What is the simplest design that can communicate a relationship among colors? It might be no more than a bar or line, perhaps based on the shape that appears when light is passed through a prism. Bars of colors convey two basic ideas: Color exists and it has a regular order. A linear form hints at a progression that can be linked to wavelengths or cycles, but it does not accomplish much more. It does not suggest complexities of color relationships and so does not validate other aspects of either practices or ideas. The shape and the placement of color may not be arbitrary, but the value of the system is limited.

Color Tables and Charts

Color tables expand the color bar, literally and figuratively. They offer a similarly recognizable display of information, but one that suggests interior relationships through size, shape, or placement of the colored areas.

Richard Waller's Basic Chart

Richard Waller's, 1686

Noting the lack of a standard for colors in natural philosophy, and inspired by a similar table published in Stockholm, Richard Waller indicated that his "Table of Physiological Colors Both Mixt and Simple," (created in 1686) would permit unambiguous descriptions of the colors of natural bodies. To describe a plant, for example, one could compare it to the chart and use the names found there to identify the colors of the bark, wood, leaves, etc. Similar applications of the information collected in the chart might also extend to the arts and trades, he suggested.

Waller offered the Society and, through its publication, readers, a grid containing 119 colors. He arranged his choices in a progression from lighter to darker colors but did not claim to include all variations of all mixtures. From left to right at top, there are seven colors, all pure (i.e., unmixed), ranging from Spanish white through deeper blue colors—smalt and indigo—to atramentum siricum, a dark blue-black. At left, from top to bottom, are first the pure yellows and then the pure reds, moving from lightest (ceruse) through atramentum fuliginosti, a dark red-brown. Mixed colors fill the balance of the grid; lighter shades are clustered in the top left and in the lower right are the darkest blacks. Waller's text suggests the mixed colors represent equal mixtures of the pure color samples at the top and left edges of the graph. He explains how to create these interior colors, but the names suggest that they may have been purchased, or that it was possible to do so.

Schäffer's Table

Schäffer's principal colors were red, yellow, blue, white, black, brown, and green.

Schäffer designed his method to ensure that illustrations in his own books could be colored properly by anyone anywhere. As the author of volumes on the classification of insects, mushrooms, and fish, he knew, through personal experience, of the problems of color and coloring.

Schäffer outlined his order for color in nine rules. The first few state general concepts. There are seven simple and natural principal colors (red, yellow, blue, green, brown, white, and black), and colors may be made from a mixture of two, three, or more of the principal colors. The remaining rules, based on Schäffer's own research, describe the construction of his classification aid and explain its system.

Schäffer's system relied on colors that could be found in an artist's shop, and it called for many mixtures, including combinations within a color group: reds with reds, browns with browns, etc. Rather than attempt to include all colors in a single sheet, he devised an initial page of principal colors, and separate pages for colors made from mixtures.

Mayer's Color Triangle

Lichtenberg's replication of Tobias Mayer's triangle has only seven chambers per side, rather than Mayer's suggested 12.

Mayer also conducted a study to guide the size of the triangle. His tests of visual perception determined that the eye can distinguish only about twelve gradations between any two colors.14 Accordingly, his triangle has thirteen compartments on each side. At each extreme, the angular color is a perfect or pure color. Each is separated from the two other pure colors by eleven proportional mixtures of them.

Mayer's complete color system included other triangles made up of the pure pigments mixed with progressively larger quantities of white or black. These triangles had progressively fewer compartments as the colors approached white (lightness) or black (darkness).

Mayer described how these triangles determined and defined colors. His graphs were bi-directional, equally useful to describe a color at hand or to determine the formula to make any color the eye could see. One could compare a color found on an object to the colors in the triangle and, because location on the graph was determined by the proportions of the preparation, know its composition. Alternatively, one could choose a color from the schematic and know immediately the combination of red, yellow, blue, black, and white needed to recreate it.

Newton's Color Circle

Newton took the bar of colors created by the passage of light through a prism and transformed it into a segmented circle, where the size of each segment differed according to his calculations of its wavelength and of its corresponding width in the spectrum. The placement and size of the colored sections of Newton's circle suggested other mathematical and harmonic relationships.

An Early Eighteenth-century Color Wheel

C.B. 1708

Two color circles are included as illustrations in the 1708 edition of Traité de la peinture en mignature, an artist's manual attributed to "C.B." (often assumed to be Claude Boutet, or the publisher, Christophe Ballard). Connections between Newtonian theories about color and this pair of circles are apparent in the design and the accompanying text. It is less clear, however, whether those theories were a direct source of inspiration. The first circle contains seven colors, violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, scarlet, and crimson. A second circle adds golden yellow, red, purple, sea green and yellow-green for a total of twelve colors. Overall, their inclusion is somewhat mysterious. The treatise had been issued in at least five editions without this portion; the color circles and the accompanying text appear only intermittently in later editions.

The physical format of "C.B."'s circle, and of circles more generally, offered consumers information about color and color relationships that was difficult to procure from charts or linear graphs. Waller's table showed which two colors could be mixed to create a third color. Mayer's triangle indicated the same information with three colors. The circle could simplify painting practices, because it is a convenient display tool for painters who wish to prepare or to choose colors.

Other Color Circles

Ignaz Schiffermüller, 1772 & Goethe, 1810

An entomologist, Ignaz Schiffermüller wished to create a more nuanced color wheel, one that would express the logical connections between musical and chromatic harmonies but that would also prove useful in practical endeavors, including natural-history classification and color production.

Goethe's Theory of Colours provided the first systematic study of the physiological effects of color (1810). His observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his color wheel, "for the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye." (Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810)
- wiki:Color Wheel

Wilhelm von Bezold's 1874

Color Wheel Basics

Taken from our post Color Theory Basics: Color Wheel.

The color wheel is a visual representation of color theory. Colors are arranged according to their chromatic relationship. Primary colors are positioned equidistant from one another and are connected by a bridge using secondary and tertiary colors
primary color wheel
Red, yellow and blue :: In traditional color theory, these are the 3 pigment colors that can not be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors. All other colors are derived from these 3 hues

secondary color wheel
Orange, green and violet :: Colors created by a mixture of two primaries.
tertiary color wheel
Red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet and red-violet :: Colors created by a mixture of primary and secondary hues.
complementary color wheel
Colors located opposite each other on a color wheel.
analogous color wheel
Colors located close together on a color wheel.

Color Wheels in Life and Art

Some Photos of Color wheels from our previous post Unusual Color Wheels Found In Life And Art.

Photo by seanhabig

Photo by ERK_

Photo by astro-dudes

Title Image by visualarts

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Showing 1 - 17 of 17 Comments


I love playing with complimentary colors! My favorite part of my color design class in college was making color wheels.

Compliments Attract


This is a 36 color every 10 degrees of saturated hue blend/gradiant. 9 palettes have end colors overlapping. Push out this line to start series below.

0-40 Degrees By 10
40-80 Degrees By 10
80-120 Degrees By 10
120-160 Degrees By10
160-200 Degrees By10
200-240 Degrees By10
240-280 Degrees By10
280-320 Degrees By10
320-0 Degrees By 10


It is difficult to complete a blended series without attracting a lot of "1" votes from the gripers. I could have done more.
Hue 5-25° 50%SatHue 30-50° 50%SatHue 55-75° 50%SatHue 80-100° 50%SatHue 105-125° 50%SatHue 130-150° 50%SatHue 155-175° 50%SatHue 180-200° 50%SatHue 205-225° 50%SatHue 230-250° 50%SatHue 255-275° 50%SatHue 280-300° 50%SatHue 305-325° 50%SatHue 330-350° 50%SatHue 355-15° 50% Sat


I'll cut this in half. There could be a word limit in these comments.

Part 1 of 2

Hue 5-25° 50%SatHue 30-50° 50%SatHue 55-75° 50%SatHue 80-100° 50%SatHue 105-125° 50%SatHue 130-150° 50%SatHue 155-175° 50%Sat


part 2 of 2 (yes, that worked.)

Hue 180-200° 50%SatHue 205-225° 50%SatHue 230-250° 50%SatHue 255-275° 50%SatHue 280-300° 50%SatHue 305-325° 50%SatHue 330-350° 50%SatHue 355-15° 50% Sat


The first one eventually appeared. Refreshing didn't help, but posting a large comment takes a certain amount of time, it seems.


Heres my take on it....

Sweet Candies
Sweet Candies 2
Sweet Candies 3
Sweet Candies 4
Sweet Candies 5
Sweet Candies 6


i think retsof has a little too much time on their hands...but i do like the compliments. i don't think that far into colours, but for someone synesthetic, like me, it's far more complex. it's all in our heads. and it has to do with touch, too, but that's another entry...


I've got one of those:
Why Not Touch This?


Where did you get these images? I went to an amazing exhibit that included many of these at the Musee d'Orsay back in 2003, but I've not been able to find a catalog for the exhibit since then. Could these be from that unknown catalog?


My art teacher was so proud of me when I showed this post to her on an art lesson. :)

Eric Petterson

It's feel great to be able to "go back in history" and see how the systems we are using came to existence.


This is great info. Thanks for sharing.

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