History Of Colour

"A world without colour is not just a drab and dreary world, it is also a dangerous, unpredictable world in which it is easy to be poisoned. Colour… is in some way telling us about the chemical composition of objects – if you like, a form of psychological spectroscopy. That colour alone is the principal cue to composition is easily seen by changing the colour of objects and observing our response to them."

Chris McManus, MA, MD, PhD
Professor of Psychology
University College, London
From the foreword to The Beginner's Guide to Colour Psychology

Over more than two thousand years, there has been, and continues to be, a wealth of wonderful work contributing to our understanding of colour. This is an outline of the best-known chapters in the story of colour, and places the development of the Colour Affects System in context.

There has never been a time when colour did not fascinate humanity and it has always been regarded as one of life's greatest mysteries. Every civilisation had (and still has today) its myths and associations with colour, but oddly, none of them has named many colours. In the 1960s anthropologists Berlin and Kay conducted a worldwide study of colour naming. Many languages only contained two colour terms, equivalent to white (light) and black (dark). Of 98 languages studied, the highest number of basic colour terms was to be found in English - where we have eleven: black, white, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, pink, grey and brown. The other millions of colours have 'borrowed' names, based on examples of them, such as avocado, grape, peach, tan, gold, etc.

350BC - 1500 A.D.
The great philosopher, Aristotle, in the fourth century BC, considered blue and yellow to be the true primary colours, relating as they do to life's polarities: sun and moon, male and female, stimulus and sedation, expansion and contraction, out and in, yang and yin. Furthermore, he associated colours with the four elements: fire, water, earth and air. He observed the way light changes throughout the day, and from this study, developed a linear colour system that ranged from the white light of midday through to the black of midnight.

(Whilst green would appear to be out of place in this sequence, many photographs are available that show a green glow at sunset.).

Artists universally adopted his principles and applied them for two thousand years, until Newton's discoveries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries replaced them in general colour theory.

Hippocrates, the father of medical practice, was a contemporary of Aristotle (who apparently did not have a very high opinion of him). He used colour extensively in medicine and recognised, for example, that the therapeutic effects of a white violet would be quite different from those of a purple (violet) one.

Another medical man, Avicenna in the eleventh century, in what is now Iran, believed that a person's physical colouring would indicate that person's predisposition to various diseases and always took account of the patient's colouring in diagnosis (which strongly resonates with Colour Affects’ 21st century ideas).

1500 – 1650 A.D
Aristotle’s theories held sway and were the basis of all artistic endeavour, for almost two thousand years until the Renaissance. In the fifteenth century the famous Swiss doctor, von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, (1493 – 1541) travelled extensively and his methods were considered highly controversial - he received more attention at the time than Copernicus. He placed particular importance on the role of colour in healing. Interestingly, he was a contemporary of not just Copernicus, but Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci and many other famous figures of the Renaissance - so his life and learning were conducted in an atmosphere of great transition in thought.

The greatest contributions to our understanding of colour historically came from men whose work combined science and mathematics with art, metaphysics and theology - indeed the sum of human study. However, in the fifteenth century, with the arrival of humanist thinking, and Martin Luther, there was tremendous intellectual upheaval. The Church lost its grip on education and many disciplines 'went their own way' - leading to the virtual separation of art from science. Further study of colour appears to have been placed in the 'Science' camp. Artists were deemed to be born with an instinct for it.

Physicist Franciscus Aguilonius believed he had used scientific research to dispute Aristotle’s theory. He devised a more ordered three-colour system based on red, yellow and blue which became the forerunner of other systems that function in a similar way. At the same time (c1611), a Finnish born astrologer, priest and neo-Platonist, Aron Sigfrid Forsius, concluded from his studies into colour theory that colours could be brought into a special order. He developed a system that began with five main median colours, red, yellow, green, blue and grey, and graded these as being closer to white or closer to black.

Forsius’ Colour Sphere

In illustrating his system of grading colours, it is believed that Forsius constructed the first drawn colour system.

1560 – 1900AD
In 1672, the great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, published his first, controversial paper on colour, and forty years later, his work 'Opticks'. When Newton shone white light through a triangular prism, he found that wavelengths of light refracted at different angles, enabling him to see the separate components – the colours of the spectrum, the rainbow. (He was able to shine them back through a prism and achieve white light again, but unable to see any further breakdown if he shone a single colour through a prism.)

By taking the violet end of the spectrum and linking it to the start point (red), Newton created the first colour wheel.

Newton’s colour wheel and a modern equivalent

One of the history's greatest minds was that of Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe - who completely disagreed with Newton's interpretations of his own findings. Goethe's 'Theory of Colours', (written in 1810, translated into English in 1840 and still in print) disputes that Newton's prism experiments proved that light splits into its component colours. He felt that if Newton was right, then white light should split under all kinds of circumstances but when he himself shone white light on to a screen in a room, he found that the centre of the image remained white and colours appeared only at the edges. This led him back to Aristotle's ideas; blue is the first colour to appear out of darkness (and most visible at night) and yellow is the first colour to appear out of light (and the most visible colour in light conditions). Hence, for example, our perception of the sun, where we are effectively looking at white light, as yellow and the sky, where we are looking into the vast blackness of space, as blue.

Goethe’s Triangle

Whereas Newton’s studies into colour were scientifically based, Goethe was more interested in the psychological effects of colour. He believed that it was important to understand the human reaction to colour and his research marks the beginning of modern colour psychology. Nevertheless, for almost three hundred years after Newton, all further work with colour was essentially concerned with appearance and vision - and most of it strictly scientific.
However, there was one shining example of scientific study leading to great strides in art - the work of Chevreul, the nineteenth century French chemist who, in studying the chemistry of dyeing, developed a colour system that became the heart of pointillism and neo-impressionism. Artists such as Seurat and Signac only ever used Chevreul’ s fundamental palette of colours.
At around the same time (early 1800s), another investigator into the theory of colour, Phillip Otto Runge, developed a three dimensional colour model in the form of a sphere, in order to demonstrate the harmony of colours. His attempt to arrange colours based on their hue and value was a revolutionary approach at that time.

Phillip Otto Runge

It is worth noting at this point that the phrase"primary colours" means different colours in different contexts. When mixing pigments, the primaries used are red blue and yellow, mixing blue and yellow will produce green. However the primary colours when using light – in PC monitors or television for example - are red blue and green; yellow is a secondary light colour. Printing primaries are cyan, magenta, yellow and black – and psychological primaries are red, blue, yellow and green.

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the pace of understanding colour accelerated dramatically:

In 1872 a Scottish physicist, Sir James Clerk Maxwell, developed a chart in the form of a triangle (very similar to Goethe’s) from his studies of the electromagnetic theory of light. He chose red, blue and green as primaries, which he believed could produce all the known colours within his triangle. His chart forms the basis for the Commission Internationale de l'Eclairage (CIE) chromaticity chart used today to measure and quantify light, such as that produced by computer phosphor guns.

CIE Chromaticity

Hermann von Helmholtz was the absolute master of the natural sciences of his day. In 1860 he published the now famous Manual of Psychologocal Optics.

Both Helmholtz and Maxwell concentrated on selecting the most suitable diagram to explain the observed facts with regard to colour mixtures. Because the trichromatic theory was both available and accepted, their attention was turned towards the geometry of the triangle, without any consideration of the phenomenological aspects. However, after noticing that the spectral colours must have varying distances to white (which must, in turn, lie at the centre of the triangle), Helmholtz put forward a modified version of Maxwell’s construction.

Hermann von Helmholtz

In 1878, the physiologist Ewald Hering published his On the Theory of Sensibility to Light in Vienna, which opposed the purely phenomenal or physical understanding of colours. Although he also spent considerable time investigating the eye's perception of three-dimensional space, Hering was more concerned with the introspective aspects of colours. For example, his work on colour refers to the problem of yellow in the three-colour system. According to Helmholtz, yellow was of necessity produced from a mixture of red and green, but this — as Hering realised — was not in line with human experience. The sensation of yellow is elementary, and not traceable to a mixture. Hering further stated that mixtures of red and green never occur, but eliminate each other. A red-green is simply inconceivable.

Hering therefore concluded that there are not three but four elementary colour sensations or psychological primaries which code our perception, by means of so-called opponent-processes. In 1878, Hering wrote: "Yellow can have a red or green tinge, but not a blue one; blue can have only either a red or a green tinge, and red only either a yellow or a blue one." The four colours can with complete correctness therefore be described as simple or basic colours, as Leonardo da Vinci had already done. Language, too, has simple descriptions of them, and not expressions borrowed from coloured natural bodies.

Ewald Hering

(When, in the late twentieth century, Anders Hard, Gunnar Tonnquist, and Lars Sivik created the Natural Colour System, (“NCS") it was based largely on Hering’s theories about how humans experience colour. Today, the NCS is the colour system behind most paint companies’ colour ranges across the world).

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the medical community had virtually put paid to the age-old practice of colour therapy, dismissing it as 'mumbo-jumbo'.

1901 to date
In the twentieth century, interest in colour exploded. The art of colour therapy was re-born and today even the most mainstream doctors use colour as an everyday part of their work.

In 1915, Albert H. Munsell, an art teacher, used the work of Runge to develop his own 3D colour sphere based on pigment rather than light. He observed that pure hues vary in their degree of lightness and that some colours are more vivid than others. He therefore decided that all pure hues should not be on the same horizontal plane and that the more vivid colours should be further away from the axis.

Munsell colour tree and Munsell colour solid

The Munsell Colour Sphere continues to be widely used by artists, designers and paint manufacturers.

In the 1920s at the famous Bauhaus school, in Germany, where the teaching staff included such luminaries as Itten, Albers, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Klee, technology and art were completely reunited. Johannes Itten was particularly interested in the connections between colours and emotions, and colours and shapes. He also observed that each of his students seemed to favour a particular palette for their work - and furthermore, the favoured palette appeared to be in some way related to that student's own physical colouring. Itten's seminal book 'The Art of Colour' is a 'must read' for anyone interested in colour.

"Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist, i.e. the hand that plays, touching one key after another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul."

Wassily Kandinsky
1866 – 1944

"Black is like the silence of the body after death, the close of life".

Wassily Kandinsky, 1911

"Colour is life; for a world without colour appears to us as dead. Colours are primordial ideas, the children of light."

Johannes Itten

Nevertheless, when Angela Wright began to pursue deeper understanding of the psychology of colour, in the mid 1970s, she found that not much progress had been made since the 1920s. There was no shortage of scientific material describing experiments to establish the psychological effects of different colours. However, the findings were often contradictory and no firm theories had emerged, so it was considered totally subjective, and therefore totally unpredictable.

Her first response to this was that none of these experiments appeared to take account of the finer points of colour - nuances of shade, tone and tint. It is not part of a psychologist's remit to study colour, so they would, for example, describe experiments where they had 'used blue and orange, with full spectrum lighting.' She felt that this was relatively meaningless, as there are at least a million blues and just as many oranges. She felt that colour harmony was a major determining factor in the psychological effect. In simple terms, disharmony negates.

She studied the dynamics of colour in California, working with Mrs Lorea Shearing, a member of the Kalmus family, who invented and developed Technicolor. She formed a clear hypothesis, involving the links between patterns of colour and personality types, that approached colour harmony from a different perspective. Going back to Aristotle's idea that blue and yellow were the true primary colours, she classified all colours, first into cool (containing blue) and warm (containing yellow), then subdivided in terms of levels of intensity and the addition of black, white or grey. This produced four tonal families, which Angela Wright then associated with four personality types, defined with considerable reference to Jung's psychology theories, particularly the concept of extraversion (yellow) and introversion (blue). She developed a clear, rational colour system - the Colour Affects System - enabling individual response to specific colour combinations to be predicted with startling accuracy, and colour psychology to be practised with much more precision and understanding.

In the 1990s the Colour & Imaging Institute, at the University of Derby in England, confirmed that the colours classified within the Colour Affects System do indeed have mathematical relationships within each colour group that do not exist between colours from different groups - not previously identified.

The work continues.