Tip #350: Isaac Newton’s Color Wheel

… for Codecs & Media

Tip #350: Isaac Newton’s Color Wheel

Larry Jordan – LarryJordan.com

The Color Wheel is almost 400 years old!

A modern color wheel, modeled after Sir Isaac Newton’s initial work.

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I was reading Blain Brown‘s excellent book, Digital Imaging, earlier this week and discovered that the color wheel that we use virtually every day was invented by Isaac Newton in 1666.

It started with Newton passing light through a prism to reveal the spectrum of light. While the spectrum of light is linear, Newton’s insight was to connect the two ends to form a circle. This made it much easier to see the relationships between primary (red, green and blue) colors with secondary (yellow, cyan, and magenta) colors.

His experiments led to the theory that red, yellow and blue were the primary colors from which all other colors are derived.  While that’s not entirely true, it’s still influential in the color wheels developed in the early 1800s as well as the color wheel currently used today. Add to his initial work the secondary colors of violet, orange and green—those which result from mixing the primary colors—and the color wheel begins to take shape.


The secondary colors – yellow and cyan – exist in the color spectrum and are formed by combining two primary colors. While magenta is formed by combining red and blue, they are at opposite ends of the color spectrum, which means that magenta, while a color, is not in the color spectrum!

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