Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Color Wheel

Yesterday when the color printer in our office was malfunctioning, my office-mate and I got on the subject of color wheels. Catherine told me that the color wheel was invented by Isaac Newton, which was something that I never knew before! I blame the bias of American education which values science over art, so all I ever learned about Sir Isaac Newton was that dumb story about gravity and an apple hitting him on the head. But we never learned the more interesting story of how a color wheel hit him on the head. Sure, I could discover a whole bunch of stuff too if things kept falling on me:

Our modern understanding of light and color begins with Isaac Newton (1642-1726) and a series of experiments that he publishes in 1672. He is the first to understand the rainbow — he refracts white light with a prism, resolving it into its component colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

In the late 1660s, Newton starts experimenting with his ’celebrated phenomenon of colors.’ At the time, people thought that color was a mixture of light and darkness, and that prisms colored light. Hooke was a proponent of this theory of color, and had a scale that went from brilliant red, which was pure white light with the least amount of darkness added, to dull blue, the last step before black, which was the complete extinction of light by darkness. Newton realizes this theory was false.

Light enters the prism from the top right, and is refracted by the glass. The violet is bent more than the yellow and red, so the colors separate.

Newton set up a prism near his window, and projected a beautiful spectrum 22 feet onto the far wall. Further, to prove that the prism was not coloring the light, he refracted the light back together.

Artists were fascinated by Newton’s clear demonstration that light alone was responsible for color. His most useful idea for artists was his conceptual arrangement of colors around the circumference of a circle (right), which allowed the painters’ primaries (red, yellow, blue) to be arranged opposite their complementary colors (e.g. red opposite green), as a way of denoting that each complementary would enhance the other’s effect through optical contrast.


  1. Is that why I'm so smart? Because things keep hitting me on the head?

  2. Well, remember when that plank of wood hit you on the head and you discovered thermonuclear physics?