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How Color Works, According to 4 Brilliant Old Diagrams

From cave paintings to Pantone chips

For as long as we have existed, humans have tried to make sense of color. Back when our limited color options included crushed up minerals, early humans created systems for organizing pigments on makeshift palettes. Any artist who’s ever worked with pigments has had to create order out of color,” says color theorist and historian Alexandra Loske. Even cave men painting the walls had to put their colors in order.”

Loske’s new book, Color: A Visual History From Newton to Modern Color Matching Guides, provides a detailed look at how the way we think about color has changed over time. The book spans the 18th century to today, and outlines dozens of fantastically designed color wheels and diagrams created by scientists, artists, and designers.

 Trying to make sense of color is just us being human and trying to understand the world.”

The visual compendium of color theories is fascinating for its pure breadth—the book covers everything from Isaac Newton’s original treatise on color, Opticks,” to Pantone’s hyper-commercialized color system. But more than that, the evolution of color diagrams illustrates how our understanding of the field is intrinsically tied to the technology, science, and artistic trends of any given moment in time. Trying to make sense of color is just us being human and trying to understand the world,” Loske says.

With that in mind, we asked Loske to walk us through a handful of moments in color history that have influenced how artists and designers think about color. Here’s what she had to say.

1
Isaac Newton’s “Opticks”

Photo courtesy of Colour Reference Library, Royal College of Art

In the late 17th century, a scientist named Isaac Newton (maybe you’ve heard of him?) became fascinated with color. More specifically, he was curious about the visual spectrum of light, which, until that point, was little understood. Newton, a mathematician, physicist, and astronomer, bought his first glass prism in the late 1660s, which he used to experiment with refracting white light into colors. Through his research he identified seven pure” colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, and organized them in a circular diagram that he engraved on a metal plate.

It’s important to point out that this most famous of all of early modern color wheels is actually without color,” Loske says. The diagram, published in “Opticks,” had labels for the visual spectrum of colors arranged as a seemingly simple illustration. Though Newton’s diagram looks rudimentary, it was conceptually complex in that it successfully validated the science behind the colors the human eye could see. Loske points out that Newton’s color wheel wasn’t designed for artists. Rather, it provided a foundation for other scientists to elaborate on Newton’s work in a meaningful way. Newton was writing about light,” she says. In order for this to be useful for artists, people had to develop other color systems.”

2
Moses Harris’ Color Wheels

Photo by Steve Creffield, courtesy of Alexandra Loske

After Newton published Opticks” in 1704, there was a steadily growing interest in color research. One scientist in particular, an entomologist named Moses Harris, expanded on Newton’s work by developing a color wheel for artists and scientists who wanted to illustrate and explain the natural world.

Harris was interested in the study of insects,” Loske explains. And to paint insects, you need 50 shade of brown.” Newton’s Opticks”, which concentrated on visible light, not material color, like pigments, didn’t even take brown into account. So Harris began combining Newton’s theories with what he was observing in the natural world. He crystalized his thinking in a 10-page booklet called The Natural System of Colours that included hand-colored wheels depicting 660 shades. He also wrote books on insects that included color wheels (pictured).

Harris’ wheels were based on three primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) that were combined to produce secondary colors (orange, green, and purple) and the various mixtures of these colors. Though Harris’ diagram is a product of the Enlightenment period, a time when rationale and taxonomic classification ruled, it was, in fact, created for artists. This is the first very very sophisticated artists’ color wheel,” Loske says.It’s a key to knowing which colors are where. But it’s also a logical next step to thinking about the emotional side of color.”

3
Mary Gartside's Abstract Blots

Photo by Clive Boursnell, courtesy of Alexandra Loske

In the early 19th century, a painter named Mary Gartside published a little-known book called An Essay on Light and Shade, on Colours, and on Composition in General. The book was written for Gartside’s wealthy female students, who, in accordance with the acceptable hobbies of the day, painted watercolors.

Gartside’s book was part practical manual, part pure artistic expression. Instead of outlining her color theory in a wheel or rubric, she free-painted blots of colors designed to show how shades interact with each other. The resulting images are woozy abstract blobs of color. There’s no hard science behind her blots, though her book does reference the research from both Harris and Newton. Instead, they focus on systematizing the feeling of color, an idea that Loske says was rare at the time. It was all about: let’s leave everything else and just focus on the color—how it feels and how it looks,” she says.

4
Michel Eugène Chevreul's Color Contrast Theory

Photo courtesy of Colour Reference Library, Royal College of Art

The French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul is one of history’s most famous color theorists. Even if you don’t know his name, you know his work. In 1839, Chevreul, who was a professor of chemistry at Paris’ Museum of Natural History, published a book called The Laws of Simultaneous Contrast of Color.  In the book, Chevreul explained the science behind why colors look brighter or duller depending on what other colors they’re next to. He’s credited with realizing what happens if you choose the wrong colors on the color wheel and put them too close together,” Loske says. He learned that they basically cancel each other out. Colors are brighter if you put them opposite of each other.”

At the time, Chevreul’s discovery was groundbreaking, if only because the theory cut across mediums. The logic behind his simultaneous color contrast theory worked in print, textiles, and it holds true even today with digitally expressed colors. The theory marked the beginning of a more industrialized use of color with lithography printing. Chevreul expressed his theory in a comprehensive book of illustrations that ranged from linear depictions of the color spectrum to beautifully graphical spreads of colored circles that highlight how the various hues interacted with each other. In many ways, Chevreul’s work was the foundation for future color theorists like Josef Albers, who were keenly interested in the interaction of color.

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