A Brief History Of Color Theory

Posted by Ren Wu

Who Discovered Color Theory

Art utilizes a lot of colors. This much is obvious! And the study of how these colors go together is known as color theory.

Key Takeaways

  • The origins of color theory can date back to ancient Greek and Egypt
  • Originally, colors were thought to stem from the four elements of fire, air, water, and earth
  • Isaac Newton published a text in 1704 that went on to explain his findings regarding colors and light
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ended up designing the color wheel we are familiar with today after further research
  • The color wheel can be broken down into various color categories, such as primary colors and complementary colors
  • To use the color wheel in your everyday life, find creative and artistic ways to explore color
  • Nail stamping and other forms of self-expression can help you further understand yourself through coloristic creativity

Color theory and the color wheel make art what it is. Keep reading, and we'll let you in on everything you need to know about the history of color!

See Related: 6 Tips On How To Mix Colors For Nail Art

When Did Color Theory First Show Up?

When we think of colors, we usually don't think too deeply about them. We probably only think of color when we're choosing our fit for the day or taking a photo for social media.

But color is, in fact, much more in-depth than that. Though a basic understanding of colors is easy to obtain, many color theories describe much more than that.

But what exactly is color theory, and why is it so crucial for people like designers or artists?

Colors are a powerful medium through which we can see and understand the world. Tones and hues can also have a potent psychological effect on our minds. For example, blue is often associated with sadness or lonesomeness while scarlet can signify power, passion, or intrigue.

Color Theory In Ancient Times

Colors have been around forever. So it can be hard to pinpoint when exactly people started to recognize and understand the idea of color theory. But the earliest traces of color theories date back to ancient times in Egypt and Greece.

The ancient Greeks described color theory in the short written text On Colors. This text on color theories and human color perception was initially attributed to Aristotle.

In particular, this text described all colors as part of a spectrum between lightness and darkness stemming from four elements. These elements are fire, air, water, and earth. Though it may seem like a strange concept now, it helped people make sense of the colors around them back then!

Another important observation from On Colors is that “darkness is not a color...merely an absence of light.”

Blue and green light red and blue light color harmony revisited color vision handprint subtractive color theory visible colors color research color combination color theorists

White Light And Sir Isaac Newton's Color Wheel

But the origins of color theory didn't end there. After publishing Opticks in 1704, Sir Isaac Newton's influence on color theory took off. Isaac Newton discovered that white light combines all colors across the visible spectrum.

Through experimentation, Sir Isaac Newton also discovered that when you shine white light through a prism, the light is further split into various hues. And when these colors are recombined, it turns back into white light!

Isaac Newton also found that when he combined two hues (red and violet) from opposite sides of the color spectrum, he created a unique color (magenta) that didn't exist on a regular rainbow. This led Isaac Newton to develop his color wheel that could then be used to describe how colors relate to each other.

His color wheel was only made with seven colors (as it was the same number of days in the week and musical notes in an octave), so the spacing between each color isn't symmetric. Regardless, Newton's findings paved the way for further developments in color theory (including the unique designs you make with your nail art!).

Creating The Color Wheel We Know Today

Sir Isaac Newton was mainly concerned with a more scientific approach to color and color theory. But in 1810, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a book called Theory of Colors to describe a more humanized strategy for color.

Through various experiments, Goethe created the standard color wheel that we are all familiar with today. This color wheel also had three primary colors on it - red, yellow, and blue. He believed these three colors could then be mixed to produce all the other colors from the spectrum!

He also argued that darkness was not the absence of light. Other findings he brought to light helped us further understand the cognitive effects that color can have on people.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wasn't the only famous color theorist to educate many people on the value and effects that color can have on the world around us. Other theorists like Tobias Mayer, Philipp Otto Runge, and Thomas Young also dedicated time and effort to researching and understanding the color wheel.

Many of us started learning and using the color wheel in elementary school. But we likely never fully understood just how meaningful that circle was!

Green and red light mixed additive color mixing subtractive color mixing glass spheres filled colored bands bright earth color contrast color space

Bonus: 5 Amazing Dip Powder Nail Designs To Inspire Your Next Manicure

Why Is The Color Wheel So Important?

Understanding the history of something is essential to know how it works. But why exactly is the color wheel so important?

We need to understand the importance and vitality of the color wheel to truly know why its history is so meaningful. So let's start with a more in-depth look at the color wheel.

Understanding What Makes The Color Wheel

The color wheel is all around us, as are the colors themselves. But how can we truly make sense of it all?

The hues on the color wheel can be broken down into various color categories. We'll start with the most influential of them all - primary colors!

Primary Colors

Red, yellow, and blue are the three primary colors. As we stated earlier, these three colors can be mixed to produce all other color combinations. Inversely, you can't mix other colors to get a primary color.

Secondary Colors

Next, we have secondary colors, which are orange, purple, and green. These colors come from mixing equal parts of two different primary colors. When you change the ratio of colors to be mixed, you can create varying hues.

Not the light color vision red green and blue simultaneous contrast correct primary colors additive color theory yellow green personal background blue green

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors, or intermediate colors, are hues you can obtain by mixing equal parts of secondary and primary colors. For example, if you mix red and purple, you can get magenta, which is a tertiary color. In total, there are six different tertiary colors.

Complementary Colors

We know that the color wheel is a circle. And each color has another color that sits directly opposite it on the wheel. These color combinations are known as complementary colors.

Because of this, complementary colors come in pairings. An example of a complementary pairing would be blue and orange.

All in all, artistic color theory is about more than just finding colors that look good to the human eye. Whether we're viewing colors on computer screens or in a fashion magazine, even a basic palette can go a long way in accentuating the natural beauty found all around us.

How To Utilize The Color Wheel In Everyday Life

If you genuinely want to understand color theory and its meaning, you must know how to use it. It's not just for famous painters, artists, or theorists. There's a reason why it's so popular.

That's because everyone can use it!

You can quickly start to integrate color theory into your everyday life. Whether you utilize it to create a school project or style your favorite outfit, there are countless creative ways to start using the color wheel correctly.

Computer's graphics card combining paints hue determined digital design tools visual effects scientific color theory pure primary colors color schemes

The Best Place To Start Expressing Yourself Through Color

One of the great things about color is that it allows you to see and appreciate the beauty all around you. And that includes yourself!

Finding the colors we like the best or that suit our natural beauty can help build confidence and self-esteem. Plus, finding creative ways to express ourselves through color can improve our moods.

There's no limit to the benefits that colorful self-expression can bring. But where to start when the possibilities are endless?

A great way to improve confidence, practice self-love, and inspire creativity is by spicing up your look. And with a fresh set of nails, you can effortlessly craft a stylish look without too much effort.

And with Maniology's nail stamping kits, it becomes even easier than that. Skip the expensive and uncomfortable trip to the nail salon, and design your own nail art right at home.

With countless unique styles and designs, you can easily make your nails something special for you. But it's time to use colors how they were meant to be!

Keep Reading: 3 Reasons Why You Need A Creative Outlet


At Maniology, we believe your nails are opportunities for adventure, fun, and unrestrained artistic expression. Our nail stamping plates and nail accessories are here to help foster your self-expression in the hopes of building a community of individuality. For more nail tutorials, subscription box updates, and designs, follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok, LinkedIn, and YouTube.

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