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The wheel keeps on turning.

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Since I created my webpage logo using a simple colour wheel, I thought it would be suitable to write my first blog about some colour wheel trivia...

In the visual arts, colour theory is a body of practical guidance to colour mixing and the visual effects of a specific colour combination. There are also definitions (or categories) of colours based on the colour wheel, a combination of primary colours, secondary colours and tertiary colours.

Interestingly, the first colour wheel was invented by scientist Sir Isaac Newton in 1706. He split white sunlight into red, orange, yellow, green, bleu, violet beams; then he joined the two ends of the colour spectrum together to show the natural progression of colours.

Newton organised this finding showing the three "primary colours" -- red, yellow and blue -- separated by - orange, green and violet. His experiments led to the theory that red, yellow and green were the primary colors from which all other colors are derived. Since magenta was a non-spectral colour of light, its origins posed a mystery then.

In 1802, Thomas Young, an English physician who had a burning desire to understand the nature of light, made progress in solving this magenta puzzle. Young first demonstrated that he could generate any colours that could be seen by mixing differing proportions of the three primary colours of light.

Young took his observations a step further: he hypothesised that the human eye perceives only Newton's three primary colours, red, yellow, and blue, and that the eye perceived all of the variations in colour by combining these internally.

When both red and blue light but no green light enters your eye, you "see" magenta even though the light is not magenta.

A combination of red and green, gives the perception of yellow while our eyes turn blue and green light into cyan.

But Young's work had only the form of an hypothesis and it was German poet, playwright, novelist, statesman, theatre director, critic and amateur artist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that challenged Newton's colour theory in his book ‘Theory of Colours’ in 1810.

“Along with the rest of the world I was convinced that all the colours are contained in the light; no one had ever told me anything different, and I had never found the least cause to doubt it, because I had no further interest in the subject.

...But how I was astonished, as I looked at a white wall through the prism, that it stayed white! That only where it came upon some darkened area, it showed some colour, then at last, around the window sill all the colours shone... It didn't take long before I knew here was something significant about colour to be brought forth, and I spoke as through an instinct out loud, that the Newtonian teachings were false.”

— Goethe, Theory of Colours

Goethe's Theory of Colours provided the first systematic study of the physiological effects of colour. His observations on the effect of opposed colours led him to a symmetric arrangement of the colour wheel still used today; anticipating Ewald Hering's 'Opponent Colour Theory' from 1872.

“…for the colours diametrically opposed to each other... are those that reciprocally evoke each other in the eye.

…When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour, comprehends the whole chromatic scale".

— Goethe, Theory of Colours

Sources and Reference: Wiki and MIT Edu; Goethe, Theory of Colours.

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