Infographic: A History of the Colour Wheel

The original colour wheel was created by Sir Isaac Newton, in 1666. His focus on the nature of light and colour and experimentation slitting sunlight with a prism lead to his colour circle. Let’s take a deep dive into history.

Newton’s first colour circle was actually more of a pie chart, in which the bands of colour he observed were dispersed in wedges, arranged around a circle. The prism produced red, blue, yellow, green and cyan.

This allowed him to show the natural sequence of colour by joining the two ends and creating the colour wheel. By the mid-1900s, a German theorist, Johannes Itten, developed the colour wheel we know today.

He took into consideration Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s hypothesis of the emotional value of colours. Such as blue was associated with coolness and red was associated with warmth. His colour wheel was based on the primary colours and contains 12 colours.

These 12 colours are as follows:

Primary – red, blue, yellow
Secondary – purple, green, orange
Tertiary – red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green, yellow-orange, red-orange

The colour wheel is a visual tool, used to help us comprehend and apply the principals of colour theory. The application of the colour wheel encompasses a vast collection of areas, such as art, architecture, fashion, and interior design.

Whether it is graphic design, photography, textile design or package design, the application of the colour wheel will create an emotion that ties us to the image, art or design.

Basic colour theory

There are three basic categories of colour theory. The colour wheel, colour harmony and context. Colour theory generates a logical structure for colour but can encompass a host of definitions, concepts and design applications.

As mentioned above, the colour wheel contains three primary colours. Three secondary colours and six tertiary colours. The primary colours are thought of as traditional colours and cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colours.

All colours are derived from these three hues. The secondary colours are formed by mixing the primary colours. The tertiary colours are formed by mixing a primary and a secondary colour.

Colour harmony refers to conveying a visually pleasing arrangement, and engages the viewer by forming balance and an inner sense of order.

There are three basic theories in relation to colour harmony:

  • a colour scheme based on analogous colours (any three colours side-by-side on the colour wheel).
  • a colour scheme based on complementary colours (any two colours that are directly opposite each other on the colour wheel).
  • a colour scheme based on nature (derived from natures images such as plants).

A multifaceted area of colour theory is how colour behaves in relation to other colours. Comparing colours and their effects is colour context.

Colour context is used in many optical illusions, as contrast and placement will trick the eye in perceiving movement or depth of the design. Saturation, placement, hue, darkness and lightness all play a role in the context.

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