History of Color Theory

The color wheel of Johannes Itten

Color Theory is a formal approach that describes how colors mix together and interact with one another from a design perspective. The history of color theory begins with Aristotle and continues through the work of Johannes Itten.


In "On Sense and Sensible Objects," Aristotle described a seven color progression that could be traced to connect black and white. His linear scale was white, yellow, red, purple, green, blue and black.

Early 16th Century

In 1510, Leonardo da Vinci created a sketch of a linear view of colors that progressed from yellow to green to blue to red.

17th Century

In 1611, Aron Sigfrid Forsius wrote a dissertation on color, which theorized that white and black were the primary colors of the world from which all other colors were derived. In 1630, Englishman Robert Fludd created the first printed color wheel in a medical journal.

Isaac Newton

The color wheel created by scientist Isaac Newton had red, blue and yellow as primary colors with purple, green and orange as secondary colors.

Johann Wolfgang Goethe

Goethe took an innovative approach to color theory by adding the emotional impact of color upon people to the color wheel.

Johannes Itten

Johannes Itten built upon Goethe's work, incorporating emotional effects of color with the work that had been done by previous theorists; his color wheel is shown above.

About the Author

Faith Davies has been writing professionally since 1996, contributing to various websites. She holds an LAH insurance license in the state of Pennsylvania and has experience as a bank branch manager and lending officer. Davies graduated cum laude from the University of Pittsburgh with a Bachelor of Arts in art history.

Photo Credits

  • The color wheel of Johannes Itten