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.