photo of Indian pigments by Dan Brady

Explore Pigments Through the Ages to learn about the history and technical details of certain colors.


Visit Exploring Color Palettes and Navigating Color Space on the Gamblin Oil Paints website.

Newton color circle

Newton's color circle

Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), English mathematician and physicist observed the phenomenon of light refracted by a glass prism and concluded that white light is a mixture of varied color rays.
The Colours Of  Light, photo by Tim Watson, flickr photos Opticks In 1704 Newton published Opticks.

goethe color wheel

Goethe's color wheel.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), poet and author of Faust, published Theory of Colours in 1810. As a color theorist, he was more interested in how we perceive color.
For more on his ideas see Goethe's Color Theory.

Chevreul's chromatic diagram.

Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889) wrote The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours and Their Applications to the Arts.
He observed that the colors we perceive are influenced by surrounding colors leading to the idea of simultaneous contrast.

Here is a color sphere published in an 1810 manuscript by Phillip Otto Runge, a German painter.

The Munsell Color System was a three dimensional model which applied letter and number values to Hue, Value and Saturation (chroma).

Seven Color Contrasts - as found in The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Color System of Johannes Itten
  1. Contrast of Hue
  2. Contrast of Value
  3. Contrast of Cold-Warm
  4. Contrast of Complements
  5. Simultaneous Contrast
  6. Contrast of Saturation
  7. Contrast of Extension
Demonstration of successive contrast

Successive Contrast

Stare at the two top circles for 30 seconds, then look at the two identical yellow circles below. Do they look different? Why?

For more information on this phenomenon see The Eye and Successive Contrast.

student work 3 colors look like 2

Simultaneous Contrast

The same phenomenon - when it happens concurrently is called Simultaneous Contrast. Colors are affected (perceptually changed) by colors around them. Since we rarely experience any color in isolation, Simultaneous Contrast is always a factor in our perception of color.

In this example the two squares in the center are factually the same. As seen in the proof below, the color agent is identical. But the color effect is changed by context. Each background color has the effect of subtracting its own hue from the square in its center. The result is that we perceive a more yellow-orange on the left side and a more red-orange on the right side.

To try it out yourself see Same Same or Different.

For more information see Color Interaction: Simultaneous Contrast.