A Brief History Of The Color Wheel

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image source 

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In 1666 the first color wheel was invented in by Sir Isaac Newton best known for his theories on gravity, motion, and light. (His theories on light are detailed in his seminal volume Optiks). Newton used a triangular prism to split a beam of white into a rainbow, proving that light is composed of a spectrum of hues – ROYGBIV. When he wrote down the different hues he made an influential decision to create a circle by connecting the opposite ends of the spectrum red and violet. (Unsurprisingly, if you spin the color wheel quickly, you’ll see white as the colors blend together.) Newton believed colors shared harmonious relationships with one another and went so far as to assign musical notes to each hue. Within this color wheel he rotated geometric shapes to identify different types of relationships.

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Runge

In 1807 painter Philip Otto Runge reimagined the color wheel as a color sphere by painting a color globe using three primaries plus black and white, complete with cross-sectioning.

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Munsell

In 1989 Albert Henry Munsell created a three-dimensional model of color in the form of a central cylinder graded from black to white surrounded by a ring of possible hues.

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Adobe

Adobe’s Color Wheel (Window > Color), one of the most used color wheels today, advances this tradition by refining the arrangement of complementary hues from subtractive (pigment or dye) to additive (light) ones, making color theory more precise. While sadly it does not offer a three-dimensional model, it offers other two dimensional graphs, including its classic square that plots all permutations lightness and saturation of a single hue plus a side-by-side rainbow slider to change the hue and gives numerical values for a given hue in four different color spaces – HSB, LAB, RGB, and CMYK.

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Chromix ColorThink

You can find virtual 3D color wheels in programs like Apple’s Color Sync which is designed to show and compare the shape of different color spaces or in Chromix’s Color which can also plot an image within the virtual volume. These models are even more informative because they show that color is not spherical but shaped more like a teardrop. One day we may be able to plot various shapes within them to design new color relationships and to more precisely identify the color relationships within existing images.

Follow up with Why Painters’ And Photographers’ Color Wheels Differ.

Read more in my Color Theory resources.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

American Photography – Exposures Video Series

Exposures – American Photography – Part 1

Exposures – American Photography – Part 2

Exposures – American Photography – Part 3

Exposures – American Photography – Part 4

Exposures – American Photography – Part 5

Exposures – American Photography – Part 6

Exposures – American Photography – Part 7

Exposures – American Photography – Part 8

Exposures – American Photography – Part 9

Exposures surveys American photography.
It’s a history lesson. It’s food for thought. It’s inspiring.
View more photography videos here.

The History Of Photography – Beaumont Newhall


“The history of photography is Beaumont Newhall! Throughout most of the 20th century he has seen a central figure in the movement to have photography recognized as an art form. It might also be said that he created the “history of photography” as a distinct and respected field of study. As a founder and father of the history of photography, photographer, curator, art historian, writer, scholar, teacher and administrator it seems as if there has been more than one Beaumont Newhall. Beginning in 1938 at the Museum of Modern Art, he created the first retrospective exhibition of the 100-year-old art of photography. This documentary highlights some of Beaumont’s experiences of being a lifelong friend, mentor and confident of many photographers now in the annals of history.”
Beaumont Newhall’s The History of Photography: From 1839 to the Present is the first classic history of art photography.

Vision & Photography – BBC Explorations – Part 3


“So much of our world is invisible to us. Its secrets locked in time and space. But alter that time and space and the once invisible world suddenly becomes visible. ??Using a fast flashing artificial light or a strobe light, its possible to freeze minute moments of time, and even the fastest moving objects. ??One of the pioneers in the use of strobe lighting in photography was Professor Harold Edgerton. Developing the technology to look at our world in different and startling ways has been one of the greatest achievements of human endeavour. The latest development in photography is also one of the most amazing. Its called Time Slice. ??Time slice, invented by Tim Macmillan, freezes a single moment in time and lets us view it in three dimensions.”

Vision & Photography – BBC Explorations – Part 2


“Our eyes play tricks on us. And all around us there exist in the natural world some of the most extraordinary optical illusions. One creature resembles its background so closely its been given the same name, the stick insect. Scientists have learnt a lot from natures optical illusions. Soldiers regularly use camouflage to blend into their background and now human ingenuity has taken camouflage to its logical next step. Soon well be able to make a man completely invisible. Electrically conducting cloth covered in light sensitive sensors sees what’s behind the soldier and projects it onto the front of a suit. Will the invisible man of science fiction soon become science fact?”