History of Color Theory

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

Color theory refers to the visual impact of color and the way colors mix. Color theory can be very complicated, but we will break it down into easier to understand portions and discover how color theory has developed over many years.


The earliest reference to color theory is thought to be written by Leone Battista Alberti in 1435. Leonardo da Vinci also refers to color theory in his journals in the late 1400s.

Color theory during this time revolves around the idea that there are three primary colors - red, blue, and yellow - and that these three colors, when mixed together in specific ways create all other colors.

Sir Isaac Newton developed the first color wheel when he expanded the theory in his 1704 work, Opticks. Here Newton says that the source of color was light and that white light, when passed through a prism, created a spectrum of colors ranging from red to violet. He viewed color as a closed system or wheel that contained the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Color theory during the 18th century expanded into the sensory and psychological effects of color. Johann Wolfgang Goethe developed a color wheel that described the psychological effect of each color. Blues give a feeling of coolness while yellows create a feeling of warmth. For Interior Designers, the psychological effects of color are a key component when choosing interior finishes.

Later, color theorists expanded color theory to include color as it relates to pigments - inks, dyes, and paints, rather than light. There are more variants when dealing with pigments because pigments may vary in hue, value, and chroma. Hue referring to the actual color - red, blue, or orange, value referring to the lightness or darkness of a color, and chroma referring to the intensity of a color. These color theories are still in place today and still refer to red, blue, and yellow as the primary colors.

There are two schools of thought when dealing with color theory - Additive and Subtractive. Additive color theory refers to the behavior of color as it pertains to light - primary colors mix to create white light. Subtractive color theory refers to the behavior of color as it pertains to the mixing of pigments like ink, paint, or dye - primary colors mix to create black.

The Color Wheel

Historically, the three primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. However, photography and printmaking use magenta (red), cyan (blue), and yellow as the primaries. Regardless, the premise is the same. Mixing two primary colors creates a secondary color - red and blue make violet, red and yellow make orange, and blue and yellow make green. Tertiary colors are made by mixing a primary and neighboring secondary color - red and orange (red-orange), red and violet (red-violet), blue and violet (blue-violet), blue and green (blue-green), yellow and green (yellow-green), and yellow and orange (yellow-orange).

Additionally, color theory references Value (the darkness or lightness of a color) and Intensity (the brightness or dullness of a color). Value is changed by typically adding white to lighten the color or adding black to darken the color. Intensity is controlled by using complementary colors side by side (bright) or mixing them (dull).

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