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History of Color Theory

I’ve been forty years discovering that the queen of all colors is black.

Pierre Auguste Renoir


The first theories about color were propounded by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who maintained (in De coloribus) that the two principal “colors” were white and black - light and its absence - and that all colors derived from one of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire. He also maintained that the true primary colors after white and black are yellow and blue: since we “see” the sun’s pure white light as yellow, and the blackness of space as blue sky. As you can see, Aristotle’s theory of colors took a philosophical rather than a scientific approach.

Leon Battista Alberti

Next came the color ideas of the major theorist of Italian Renaissance art, Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), expounded in 1435 in his inspirational handbook Della Pittura (On Painting). In Della Pittura, which became one of the major sources for later treatises on fine art painting, Alberti states: “Through the mixing of colors infinite other hues are born, but there are only four true colors from which more and more other kinds of colors may be thus created. Red is the color of fire, blue of the air, green of the water, and grey of the earth... white and black are not true colors but are alterations of other colors.” Without going into detail, Alberti maintains and extends the general Aristotlean approach, minus black and white which are demoted to non-colors. Although his theoretical contribution to color science was thin, Alberti did have quite a lot of advice for painters about the use of color, like which pigments and which tints and shades were appropriate.

Sir Isaac Newton: The Color Spectrum

The next major person to address the fundamental concepts of color was the scientist Sir Isaac Newton, whose discovery of the color spectrum together with his theory of color (outlined in his later treatise Opticks, 1704) - continues to shape the debate. It was Newton’s prism experiments in 1666 that furnished the scientic basis for the understanding of color. In these, Newton proved that a prism separated white light into a range of colors (which he called a “spectrum”), and also that the recombination of these spectral hues re-created the original white light. Although the spectrum was continuous, Newton identified 7 different color-segments (by analogy with the 7 notes of the music scale) which he named red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. All other colors in the spectrum were created, he hypothesized, from these 7.

Goethe, Chevreul & Others

Subsequent scientific and optical investigations, as outlined in such works as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colors (1810) and Michel Eugène Chevreul’s Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast (1839), concluded (1) that the three primary colors were red, yellow, and blue (RYB); and that all other colors could be created through various combinations or mixtures of these primary colors, or their children; (2) that this theory of color-mixing applied equally to the behaviour of light colors (beams of light) added together (additive mixing), and colored pigments added together (subtractive mixing).

While the first conclusion was mostly true, the second was false. This was because the absorption of light by material substances (like pigments/dyes) follows different rules from the perception of light by the eye.

Towards the end of the 19th century, scientists in Britain and Germany found that the perception of color is best understood in terms of a different set of primary colors - red, green and blue/violet (RGB) – using a light-based model. Later study by experts in trichromacy revealed that these colors are perceived in special ways by three types of color receptors or cones in the retina.

Finally, 20th century industrial chemists studying the mixing of pigments and dyes discovered that the behaviour of these materials is best described and regulated by using a third color-model based on the primary colors cyan (a blue), magenta (a red), and yellow (CMY). In the printing industry, because these pure pigments are expensive, the color Black (K), is substituted for equal parts of CMY to lower ink costs, thus producing a fourth color-model, the CMYK system.