Sunday, June 29, 2008

Color Theory: History of the Color Wheel

Introduction to Color Theory

In the past many men have dedicated their lifetimes to the study of color. This dedication has given us the knowledge we have today. We will study the different aspects of color theory from the ideas of Itten, Munsell, Birren, Chevreul and others. The wealth of information gained from these men could possibly take our lifetimes to thoroughly digest, therefore I will touch mainly on those aspects that pertain to our love of Decorative Painting. The following pages are not only going to strengthen your technical painting skills, but will strengthen the beauty of your painting and sharpen your sense of color.

Color theory is based on both scientific research and personal observations. As most of you do not come from a scientific background, we will forgo that end of color theory. For your personal research, you may choose to do additional personal study by reading books written by the above-mentioned men. A bibliography is supplied for your reference. This reading is NOT a requirement.

The next pages will concentrate strictly on identifying hue, value and chroma. These three little words are the very heart of color theory. We will do many exercises and make reference charts which will become a permanent file to refer to throughout you painting career. Do not despair over thought of drudgery the word "exercises" conjures up. The act of doing helps to cement ideas and the visual images help to activate the memory and understand concepts. So... Let's get started!

History of the Color Wheel

In order to begin study of hue, value, and chroma, we must have a starting point. The most natural point is the color wheel. Who decided colors come in a wheel, why are their twelve colors in the wheel, why is there a specific order of sequence??? Answers below!

From classical Greek philosophers up until around 1660, the accepted theory of color esteemed that all colors were based upon the elements of fire, air, water, and earth, mixed with lightness and darkness. Even Leonardo da Vinci held to this theory.

There were no attempts at organizing colors until Sir Isaac Newton bent white light through a prism and discovered the spectrum of colors. He chose seven major colors to relate to the seven planets and seven musical notes of the diatonic scale: red (C), orange (D), yellow (E), green (F), blue (G), indigo (A), and violet (B). He then twisted this straight bank of the spectrum into history's first color wheel.

It was not until the middle 1700's that the primaries were finally discovered. J.C. LeBlon published a written treatise on the fundamental nature of the primaries which simply states these colors mixed together in prescribed orders made what we now call secondary colors.

About ten years later (ca.1766), Morris Harris, published the first color chart printed in full hue. This chart appears in the book The Natural System of Colors . It discusses the primitive colors (red,yellow, blue), the mediate colors (orange, green, purple), and compound colors (tertiaries). This is the point I mark as the true beginning of color theory.

From the 1800's on, there is a flurry of activity in the study of color. The men who took up the study of color come from varied backgrounds of scientists, philosophers, artists even poets. Goethe arranged his colors in both circles and triangles, Runge used both the triangle and a solid color sphere, Blanc arranged his colors in a six-pointed star. I will not bore and confuse you with details of the many different theories at this point, however, it is interesting reading if you have the time. The amount of history I have given up to this point is simply to illustrate how long it took man to develop a logical system for studying color and to show how varied the methods can be.

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