The History of Color Wheels
or Color Ordering
by Mary Ellen Searcy

As originally published in Needle Pointers, October/November '92

Editor's Note: Mary Ellen Searcy is a fiber artist who alters many grounds with fabric paints, leaf, powders and inks, in a variety of techniques. Her newer contemporary work usually is complex collage, layering three-dimensional techniques, stitches, beads and found objects using hand and machine. She has taught nationally for EGA, ANG, NAN, EAC (Canada), at CAE and Callaway, many of them fabric painting and color and design classes. Mary Ellen holds Level II teaching certification in canvas from the National Academy of Needlearts. Blue Opalescence Squared is in the NAN permanent collection. Her Fiber art pieces have won many awards and are in private collections. She has retired from teaching to stitch her personal work.

The ordering of color is a way to label colors and put them in an order. There is a clear line of development from when the Babylonians showed an interest in color in 1990 B.C. until now.

In 400 B.C., the Greeks assumed that color originated from the struggle between lightness and darkness. They thought color had a primal power, its symbolism causing an emotional reaction to color.

Empedocles, who lived from approximately 495 to 435 B.C., was a Greek philosopher who stated that each object gave off little particles that passed through the eyes. He believed that the eyes either produced a color reaction because of the particles, or recognized the particles as color.

Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, who lived from 384 to 322 B.C., seems to have been the first to realize that the eyes cannot see color without light. He thought that color was created by something transparent between the object and the eyes. He was the first to see that daylight shining through a piece of yellow glass onto white marble produced yellow light and through blue glass produced blue light.

When light passed through first the yellow glass and then the blue glass, he concluded that they produced green light.

What he should have done was to project the daylight through the yellow glass and the blue glass separately, onto one spot. He then would have found that blue light and yellow light produce white light and not green.

His theory and that of many to follow were based on his wrong assumption. What he had done was to filter light through the yellow and blue glass together.

Mixing colored light, such as that used in theater lighting or flood-lights, is called the additive theory of color. Mixing paint colors, such as blue and yellow paint mixed becomes green paint, is called the subtractive theory of color.

The first 'color wheel' was not a circle. Ancient Greeks saw the colors as in a straight line. They first thought that the colors were ordered from the white of the day on the left, to the red of the rising and setting sun, to the black of the night on the right.

Aristotle's theory was that colors went from dark to light, between black and white, still on a straight line. White was at the left, followed by yellow, with red in the middle, followed by blue and then black on the right. Green was still seen as a mix of yellow and blue and was incorrectly placed midway, along with the red.

Aristotle wrote that "Simple colors are the proper colors of the elements, i.e., of fire, air, water and earth." They were created by blends of darkness and light: "Black mixed with sunlight and firelight turns crimson."

This color ordering lasted for about eighteen centuries. There were many reasons why there were few new theories about color at this time. There was a lack of communication because of long distances; the church and state doctrines restricted thought; there was little knowledge of physics and physiology and there was a limited choice of color pigments, causing artists and painters to prepare their own paint and to keep their ingredients and formulas secret.

In the 1500's, Leonardo da Vinci more or less believed in Aristotle's views. He stated that white was no color, yellow was for the earth, green for the water, blue for air, red for fire and black for total darkness. He believed that yellow and blue light. made green light. There was no systematic attempt made to organize colors for another century.

In 1593, Della Porta believed that light was a refraction of the sunlight as in rainbow colors through a rain cloud. He too believed that the mixing of blue and yellow light produced green. He also thought that, like the early belief red was a result of mixing white light with a black cloud.

In 1613, Aquilonius believed in the straight line of color from black to white, but added arcs as a way of mixing colors.

In 1646, Kircher incorporated a more consistent concept of mixed colors with semicircles. This was the first time in 2200 years that the ordering of colors was not in a straight line from black to red to white. He also ordered the colors in lightness to darkness. This was not given attention again until the 1900's.

Sir Isaac Newton, in 1666, dissected light by passing it through a glass prism. The colors of light which fanned out in a band of successive wavelengths were named violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. We would perceive these colors as violet-blue, ultra-marine blue, cyan blue, green, yellow and red.

He placed these color hues in a closed circular color ring which was divided into seven uneven parts. He declared that all colors were to be found in white light and placed white in the center of the ring.

Many who studied color at that time had fierce reactions against Newton's work. One hundred years later there was still negative criticism.

But Newton had made a valuable contribution. He spurred further scientific color research with light and the divided sunlight spectrum. His theory was the basis for systematic color in a closed ring of color hues.

From this time on, color was studied by many people. There were many theories and variations of the color wheel put forth, using the light theory and applying it to paint. Colors on the wheel were expanded or contracted, some were added, some were left out. What we know as the complementary colors, or those across from each other, changed with the various color wheels. Inside the color circle, many differently shaped color ordering schemes were placed: triangles, squares, five, six, seven, eight and other multi-cornered shapes.

In 1731, J.C. Le Blon discovered the primary nature of red, yellow and blue in pigment mixtures. This was the beginning of the RYB theory as we know it today: red and yellow make orange, yellow and blue make green and blue and red make purple. Mixing those primaries results in the secondary colors of orange, green and purple.

In 1766, Morris Harris, an English engraver and entomologist, published the first color chart ever to appear in full hue or color. It was the RYB theory, much as we use today, from the book, THE NATURAL SYSTEM OF COLOURS.

The color theory with red, yellow and blue as the primary colors, was now broadly accepted and was taken up by a long series of scientists, artists and philosophers.

In 1790, Hermann von Helmholtz of Germany and James Clerk Maxwell of Great Britain, first discovered that the primary colors of light were red, green and blue.

M.E. Chevreul was one of the most influential colorists of all time who believed in the red, yellow, blue color theory. The French chemist was named, in 1824, as Director of Dyes for the Royal Manufactures at the Gobelins, a state-controlled tapestry enterprise. He studied dye-stuffs, problems of color vision, visual effects and color harmony. His lectures and books on color were followed by many Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist artists.

Helmholtz, a German scientist, first published his additive laws of colored light composition and his subtractive laws of colored pigment composition in 1855. His theory, published in 1867, was the basis for nearly all later work in color science.

The primaries for the additive theory for colored light are red, green and blue. When mixed together they form a white light. The primaries for the subtractive theory for colored pigments are magenta, yellow and cyan. When mixed together they form black pigment.

In 1857, Maxwell became the first man to measure and define the light spectrum accurately. He produced and published the first color photo.

In 1876, Louis Prang was one of a group of prominent educators whose efforts have more or less made the RYB theory part and parcel with American color and art education. Prang published the color circle of Wilhelm von Bezol of Munich. This book was titled THE THEORY OF COLOR, published in England in 1876. The primaries of this color wheel were vermilion, green, bluish green, turquoise blue, ultramarine, bluish violet, purplish violet, purple and carmine.

In 1905, Albert H. Munsell ordered color with five principal colors as perceived in nature for his color identification, using harmony, color organization and notation. His remarkable invention was placing all the colors from dark to light, mixing one with another in a three dimensional color tree or sphere.

His was a landmark contribution to the art and science of color order. His primary colors of red, yellow, green, blue and purple and secondary colors of red-purple, purple-blue, blue-green, green-yellow and yellow-red, make a color wheel with ten divisions. Each color is given a letter or combination of letters for the color and a number according to lightness, darkness and pure color. Since the color wheel is based on ten colors, a decimal system is used.

In 1916, Wilhelm Ostwald, a German scientist, arranged colors in triangles, also describing them in terms of purity, whiteness and blackness. He thought that the earlier assumption of the three primaries and six fundamental colors was wrong. In his book, THE COLOR PRIMER, the primaries are yellow, red, blue and sea green, while the secondary colors are orange, purple, turquoise and leaf green, together called fundamental colors. His theories and principles became more or less mandatory as training aids in German schools. His theories were also widely taught in England.

In 1961, the artist Johannes Itten wrote in his book, THE ELEMENTS OF COLOR, that the three primaries were red, yellow and blue. His theory underlies progressive art education all over the world. Itten designed the twelve part color star in 1921. This beautiful twelve pointed star contains pure colors, and graded scales, from very light or tints to very grayed or shaded colors. His COLOR STAR color wheel is probably the most widely used today.

In 1963, Alfred Hickethier, a German painter, believed in the magenta, yellow, cyan color primaries. He assigned a number and place to each of these three colors. Any three digit number tells how much of each color is in any given color.

Frans Gerritsen, in 1975, organized colors according to the laws of color perception, in a schematic three-dimensional color perception diagram. All colors were ordered according to color hue, inherent lightness and saturation and as to light and dark values. His primaries are green, yellow, red, magenta, ultramarine-blue and cyan.

Faber Birren has studied art since 1920. He has become a best-known and widely read color authority of his time and has written many books on color. He is considered one of the most original thinkers in today's world of color expression. He uses the red, yellow and blue color theory, but with slight modifications of each of these primaries.

"All color circles for the most part are satisfactory for color harmony purposes, the red-yellow-blue circle, the Munsell circle, the Ostwald circle or any other.

"Science is progressive. What was believed generations ago no longer applies, for science has made great strides and has introduced a wholly new fund of technical knowledge."

Since around 1975, it is accepted that there are two versions of the subtractive, or 'paint mixing' color wheel. One is the old or traditional color wheel with the primaries of red, yellow and blue, with Itten's probably being the most widely used and taught.

The second and newer accepted theory is a result of many years of the study of light, how we see light and how the eye and the brain work. It is also the result of new developments in chemical colors and processes.

In the newer version of the subtractive or paints/dyes system, the primary hues are magenta, yellow and cyan, with the secondary hues red, blue and green. The color printing processes and color photography are based on this newer version.

Patricia Lambert, artist, photographer, and professor of color and design, in 1991, wrote: "For color mixing, the magenta, yellow and cyan hue circle gives accurate and consistent results and is also consistent with other color phenomena in perception. And while the relationships and color approximations found in the red, yellow and blue system are by no means invalid, the mixing results in that system are somewhat unpredictable."

All 24 colors are placed correctly on the color wheel, with the complementary colors mixing to a neutral gray. This allows you to choose which ordering system you will use, usually a decision between red, yellow, blue, or magenta, yellow, cyan (turquoise). The use of color schemes is an important part of choosing colors for your needlework, along with the use of values. Refer often to the Elements and Principles of Design.


Birren, Faber, PRINCIPLES OF COLOR, West Chester, Pennsylvania, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1987

Brommer, Gerald F., THE ELEMENTS AND PRINCIPLES OF DESIGN (Teachers Guide), Crystal Productions, P. O. Box 2159, Glenview, IL 60025 (1-800-255-8629)

Chevreul, M.E., THE PRINCIPLES OF HARMONY AND CONTRAST OF COLORS, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1981.

De Grandis, Luigina, THEORY AND USE OF COLOR, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986.

Gerritsen, Frans, EVOLUTION IN COLOR, West Chester, Pennsylvania, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1988.

Itten, Johannes, THE ART OF COLOR, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1973.

Lambert, Patricia, CONTROLLING COLOR, New York, Design Press, 1991.

Lambert, Staepelaere, Fry, COLOR AND FIBER, West Chester, Pennsylvania, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1986.

Munsell, Albert H., A GRAMMAR OF COLOR, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1969.

Ostwald, Wilhelm, THE COLOR PRIMER, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1969.

Quiller, Stephen, COLOR CHOICES, New York, Watson-Guptill Publications, 1989.
(places 24 colors and gives paint names)

Sidelinger, Stephen J., COLOR MANUAL, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1985.