Brief (gap filled) History of colour circles

1665-66 Sir Isaac Newton determines seven indivisible colours he names ‘the spectrum’, when he split white light through a prism. He represents the spectral colours within a circle that is generally thought to be the first colour circle. His experiment was published in his Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light in 1704.

1690 Christiaan Huygens departs from Newton’s ‘corpuscular’ understanding of light to publish his 1678 discovery that light, instead, travels as a type of wave motion.

1708 Claude Boutet, in Traite de la Peinture en Mignature in 1708, uses the seven-colour division in reference to Newton (John Gage, Color and Meaning’, 1999). Although the colours are similarly displayed in a circle, they appear anti-clockwise.

1801 Huygens’ wave theory was largely ignored for over 100 years until Thomas Young and, later in 1851, Hermann von Helmholtz validate it through experiments that led both to advance a trichromatic theory, where our eye’s retina is sensitive to just three colours that combine to create all other colours. Young takes these to be red, yellow and blue. By recognising the validity of Huygens’ wave theory, Young was first to measure the wavelengths of Newton’s spectral colours (JCD Brand, ‘Lines of Light’, 1995).

1810 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe publishes his Theory of Colours (1840 first English translation) in which he disputes Newton, yet still uses a circle to set out three primary colours where each is opposite to its ‘optical’ opposite, that is, its after image, far in advance of a physiological understanding of this phenomenon.

1860 James Clerk Maxwell publishes his colour findings made through use of a colour wheel of Young’s suggestion. By combining colour disks of paper of various proportions on the wheel and spinning it, Maxwell could demonstrate the quantities of red, blue and green (not yellow) that combine to make other colours. This was given greater exactitude through a portable light box he had made, through which Maxwell could determine the qualities of red, blue and green light needed. With this, Maxwell developed ‘the quantitative theory of three-colour vision’ (Malcolm Longair, ‘Light and Colour’, 1995).

Before Maxwell’s work, the application of colour as physical pigments was generally thought as entirely separate to Newton’s discovery of light’s spectral colours and wavelengths.

Once, however, it became clearly understood that our eye is stimulated by just three colour wavelength-ranges that, together, signal the millions of colours we see; then an understanding of pigmented colour as separate could no longer hold, since pigmented colour can only be seen as colour through its wavelength stimulation of our retinas.

From Maxwell onwards, an understanding of additive colour and subtractive colour developed. Additive colour is seen in the way spectral colours combine as white light. When, however, white light bounces off a coloured surface, the pigment of that surface absorbs (subtracts) certain wavelengths and reflects the others that stimulate our retinas so we then see the pigmented colour.

1913 The Commission internationale de l’éclairage (CIE) forms in Vienna. Through experiments by W. David Wright published in 1928 based on ten observers, and John Guild’s experiments published in 1932 based on seven observers, the CIE releases the first ‘colour spaces’ in 1931 that correlate spectral wavelengths to the physiological perception of colour.

In 1976 the CIElab colour space was released. ‘It expresses color as three values: L* for the lightness from black (0) to white (100), a* from green (−) to red (+), and b* from blue (−) to yellow (+). CIELAB was designed so that the same amount of numerical change in these values corresponds to roughly the same amount of visually perceived change.’

1961 Johannes Itten, who taught at the Bauhaus in Weimer from 1919–1923, publishes The Art of Color. In it he explains: It remains to consider the important question of the colors of objects. If we hold a red and a green color filter, for example, in front of an arc lamp, the two together will give black, or darkness. The red filter absorbs all the rays in the spectrum except the red interval, and the green filter absorbs all but the green. So no color is left over, and the effect is black. Colors resulting from absorption are known as subtractive colors.

The colors of objects are chiefly subtractive colors of this nature. A red vessel looks red because it absorbs all other colors of light, and reflects only red.


When we say, ‘This bowl is red”, what we are really saying is that the molecular constitution of its surface is such as to absorb all light rays but those of red. The bowl does not have a color in itself: light generates the color.

Itten’s colour circle published in 1961 appears, at first, to ignore Maxwell’s realisation that—given the particular wavelength-ranges that stimulate our retinas— red, green and blue are the primary colours that combine to make other colours. Itten instead places a triad of red, yellow and blue at the centre of Newton’s spectral ring that runs around the outside (backwards), to try and bridge, perhaps, subtractive and additive colour without negating Goethe’s after images.

GH 2019

Fig. 1 Sir Isaac Newton’s representation of spectral colours in his Opticks of 1704. Fig. 2 A guess at the colours. Fig. 3 Claude Boutet’s 1708 rendition of Newton’s spectral colours. Fig. 4 Goethe’s 1810 colour circle that ignores Newton’s findings and focusses, instead, on a colour’s after image.

Fig. 1. Maxwell’s 1855 colour wheel. In 1855, Maxwell began his studies of the quantitative theory of colour while a research fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. The mixing of different amounts of the primary red, green and blue lights could synthesise any colour. The merging of the colours was achieved by rotating the disc rapidly. The central black and white sectors enabled a grey comparison light to be synthesised. Fig.2 Maxwell’s light box showing the overall layout of the prism arrangment to disperse the white light. The amounts of red, green and blue light was measured by the widths of the apertures at the right end of the box. Fig.3 Maxwell holding the colour wheel. Images and description: The Cavendish Laboratory

Fig. 1 CIE’s 1931 Colour Space with spectral colour wavelengths around the outside. Fig. 2 CIElab released in 1976, where L* ranges from 0 (white) to 100 (black), a* from green (-) to red (+), and b* from blue (-) to yellow (+). Fig. 4 Johannes Itten’s colour circle published in 1961 that references Newton’s spectral colours in the outside circle (backwards), connected to an internal triad of pre-wavelength primaries: Red, Yellow and Blue. Post-wavelength primaries are Red, Green and Blue.


1665-66 Sir Isaac Newton determines seven indivisible colours he named ‘the spectrum’, when he split white light through a prism. He represents the spectral colours within a circle that is generally thought to be the first colour circle. His experiment was published in his Opticks: or, A Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light in 1704.

1690 Christiaan Huygens departs from Newton’s ‘corpuscular’ understanding of light to publish his 1678 discovery that light, instead, travels as a type of wave motion.

1708 Claude Boutet, in Traite de la Peinture en Mignature in 1708, uses the seven-colour division in reference to Newton (John Gage, Color and Meaning’, 1999). Although the colours are similarly displayed in a circle, they appear anti-clockwise.

1801 Huygens’ wave theory was largely ignored for over 100 years until Thomas Young and, later in 1851, Hermann von Helmholtz validate it through experiments that led both to advance a trichromatic theory, where our eye’s retina is sensitive to just three colours that combine to create all other colours. Young takes these to be red, yellow and blue. By recognising the validity of Huygens’ wave theory, Young was first to measure the wavelengths of Newton’s spectral colours (JCD Brand, ‘Lines of Light’, 1995).

1810 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe publishes his Theory of Colours (1840 first English translation) in which he disputes Newton, yet still uses a circle to set out three primary colours where each is opposite to its ‘optical’ opposite, that is, its after image, far in advance of a physiological understanding of this phenomenon.

1860 James Clerk Maxwell publishes his colour findings made through use of a colour wheel of Young’s suggestion. By combining colour disks of paper of various proportions on the wheel and spinning it, Maxwell could demonstrate the quantities of red, blue and green (not yellow) that combine to make other colours. This was given greater exactitude through a portable light box he had made, through which Maxwell could determine the qualities of red, blue and green light needed. With this, Maxwell developed ‘the quantitative theory of three-colour vision’ (Malcolm Longair, ‘Light and Colour’, 1995).

Before Maxwell’s work, the application of colour as physical pigments was generally thought as entirely separate to Newton’s discovery of light’s spectral colours and wavelengths.

Once, however, it became clearly understood that our eye is stimulated by just three colour wavelength-ranges that, together, signal the millions of colours we see; then an understanding of pigmented colour as separate could no longer hold, since pigmented colour can only be seen as colour through its wavelength stimulation of our retinas.

From Maxwell onwards, an understanding of additive colour and subtractive colour developed. Additive colour is seen in the way spectral colours combine as white light. When, however, white light bounces off a coloured surface, the pigment of that surface absorbs (subtracts) certain wavelengths and reflects the others that stimulate our retinas so we then see the pigmented colour.

1913 The Commission internationale de l’éclairage (CIE) forms in Vienna. Through experiments by W. David Wright published in 1928 based on ten observers, and John Guild’s experiments published in 1932 based on seven observers, the CIE releases the first ‘colour spaces’ in 1931 that correlate spectral wavelengths to the physiological perception of colour.

In 1976 the CIElab colour space was released. ‘It expresses color as three values: L* for the lightness from black (0) to white (100), a* from green (−) to red (+), and b* from blue (−) to yellow (+). CIELAB was designed so that the same amount of numerical change in these values corresponds to roughly the same amount of visually perceived change.’

1961 Johannes Itten, who taught at the Bauhaus in Weimer from 1919–1923, publishes The Art of Color. In it he explains: It remains to consider the important question of the colors of objects. If we hold a red and a green color filter, for example, in front of an arc lamp, the two together will give black, or darkness. The red filter absorbs all the rays in the spectrum except the red interval, and the green filter absorbs all but the green. So no color is left over, and the effect is black. Colors resulting from absorption are known as subtractive colors.

The colors of objects are chiefly subtractive colors of this nature. A red vessel looks red because it absorbs all other colors of light, and reflects only red.


When we say, ‘This bowl is red”, what we are really saying is that the molecular constitution of its surface is such as to absorb all light rays but those of red. The bowl does not have a color in itself: light generates the color.

Itten’s colour circle published in 1961 appears, at first, to ignore Maxwell’s realisation that—given the particular wavelength-ranges that stimulate our retinas— red, green and blue are the primary colours that combine to make other colours. Itten instead places a triad of red, yellow and blue at the centre of Newton’s spectral ring that runs around the outside (backwards), to try and bridge, perhaps, subtractive and additive colour without negating Goethe’s after images.

GH 2019