Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Color Circle

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_231



The color circle, as generally understood and widely used, is a diagram with a continuous sequence of hues arranged in the order of the spectrum. (The gap between spectral red and spectral violet is bridged with extra-spectral purples.) The color circle diagram is used as a guide to color mixing and color composition. It is also used in the classification of colors and is incorporated in all three-dimensional color order systems.


Very many color circle diagrams have been designed and published. The essential feature is that the diagram must represent the sequence of hues in correct order and in a continuum: reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, purples, reds, oranges, yellows, greens, etc. The number of separate hues in the sequence can vary as can the hues themselves that are selected for inclusion. The starting point for some color circles is a choice of so-called primary colors. Other circles are organized so that colors opposite to each other are, in some sense, complementary. Many color circles are also organized so that the degree of difference between neighboring colors in the sequence appears to be the same all round the circle.

The Variety of Color Circles

There is no single “correct” design for a color circle. Different circles have been constructed on different principles. They are not necessarily presented in color; in some the colors are simply identified by name. Color circles can be grouped in three broad categories: those that represent colors as something physical, those that represent colors as visual phenomena – what people see –, and those where the colors can be understood as either or both, physical and/or visual. In the first category the colors represent lights, paints, inks, or dyes, and the position of the colors in relationship to each other is generally determined by their physical properties or by the way that these lights, paints, inks, or dyes can be mixed to produce a large range of other colors. In the second category the colors are simply themselves and it is their appearance that determines how they are related in the circle. In the third category it may not be clear whether the colors are to be understood as physical or visual or both. It could be that the designers and users of such circles confuse the physical and the visual aspects of color. For an account of the way that the physical and visual aspects of color can be confused, see the entry on “Primary Colors” in this encyclopedia.

As color circles fall into different categories, and are constructed according to different principles, the relationship between colors can vary from circle to circle. This does not mean that the sequence of hues can vary – that must always be the same – but the distance between hues can vary. For example, it could be that two different circles have yellow in the 12:00 o’clock position, but red might be at 3:00 o’clock in one circle and at 4:00 o’clock in the other. The principles underlying the design of the color circles would have fixed the position of red in relation to yellow. Problems can arise when there is a mismatch between the intentions of the designer and the expectations of the user. A particular color circle can be criticized for not representing particular color relationships when it was never the intention that such relationships be embodied in the design.

Precursors to the Color Circle

The color circle, as defined above, was invented by Isaac Newton, whose color circle is illustrated in his book Opticks, first published in 1704 (see Fig. 4) [1, pp. 32–35]. Before Newton it was believed that there was a beginning and an end to the sequence of colors. Aristotle had claimed that all colors derived from mixtures of white and black which he placed at either end of a linear scale [2, pp. 31–32]. Aristotle’s prestige was so great that science was dominated by his ideas until the time of Galileo [3, p. 213]. Some circular color diagrams do predate Newton but they still reflect Aristotle’s ideas.

John Gage describes a circular diagram that survives in an illuminated manuscript from the fifteenth century. This shows the colors of urine, between white and black, that helped physicians diagnose certain diseases [4, pp. 162 and 171]. White and black also appear in other circular diagrams, two in a manuscript by Sigfrid Forsius (1611) and another in a printed medical text by Robert Fludd (1629–31). Fludd’s circle has this sequence: white, yellow, orange, red, green, blue, and black [2, p. 42]. Forsius echoes Aristotle when he writes: “Among colours there are two principles, white and black, from which all others arise” [5, pp. 12–13]. The Forsius manuscript contains two circular diagrams. Each has white in the 12:00 o’clock position and black at 6:00 o’clock. Forsius explains that his first circle illustrates the way in which the “Ancients” arranged the colors. Down the left side, between white and black, are pale yellow, yellow, orange, red, purple, brown, and violet. Down the right side are ash gray, gray, sky blue, blue, pale green, green, and dark green. The second Forsius diagram is shown in Fig. 1 and recreated in Fig. 2 with color names translated from old Swedish.
Color Circle, Fig. 1

Circular diagram from the manuscript by Sigfrid Forsius (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)

Color Circle, Fig. 2

Reconstruction of the Forsius diagram with color names translated from old Swedish

Claims have been made that this second Forsius diagram represents a sphere [7, p. 224]. If this is correct then the central horizontal line must be read as a circle seen from the side with red, yellow, green, and blue on the circumference and gray in the middle. Werner Spillmann has applied the principles of graphic projection to this interpretation and points out that it would mean that the hues are in the wrong order [8, p. 7]. Yellow must be closest to the observer and green farthest away or vice versa. Either way, the hue sequence would be red, yellow, blue, and green, which is not the order in which they appear in the spectrum. However these early diagrams are read, not one of them, unequivocally, shows the sequence of hues as continuous and in the correct order.

Development of the Color Circle

The color circle did not evolve so much as develop a growing variety of uses. Newton’s circle identifies colors with light of different wavelengths and he shows how the diagram can be used to illustrate the results of additive mixing. Some later circles illustrate the results of subtractive mixing from a set of “primaries.” In other circles the positions of the colors are determined by how they appear. Such arrangements are used in systems of color identification. Color circles have been developed where the apparent difference between neighboring colors is the same all round the circle. Colors that are opposite to each other in some circles are described as being complementary. Even spacing and complementary relationships are seen as significant in theories of color harmony.


In Fig. 3 Lindsay MacDonald is showing how white light is refracted by a prism to reveal the different colors. Although not easily visible here, the blue shades into a slightly reddish violet at the short-wave end of the spectrum. Perhaps it was the redness at each end of the spectrum that gave Newton the idea of connecting the two ends to form his circle. Newton’s color circle is shown in Fig. 4.
Color Circle, Fig. 3

Lindsay MacDonald demonstrating how a prism separates white light into different colors

Color Circle, Fig. 4

Isaac Newton’s color circle representing colors as different wavelengths of light (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)

Strictly speaking, the sequence of hues in Newton’s circle is incomplete. The circle is divided into seven segments, each identified by name. At first Newton refers to each segment as representing a single color – “Let the first part DE represent a red, the second EF orange …” – but he goes on to say that these represent “all the colors of uncompounded light gradually passing into one another as they do when made by Prisms …” [1, p. 32]. So the segment DE does not represent a single red but a range of the hues that would be identified as “red.” And the lines that separate the segments represent the borders where colors that would be identified by one name give way to those that would be identified by the next; the “red” segment would have a range of colors from reds to orange-reds. Because the colors in the circle represent the wavelengths of light in the visible spectrum, there is no place for the bluish reds and purples that are not visible in the spectrum. And if the hues shade into each other across the borders separating the other named segments, there would be a break in the sequence at point D with no spectral hues to shade from violets to reds.

A color circle which does show all the hues, spectral and non-spectral, shading into each other was produced by Michel-Eugène Chevreul and published in 1864 (Fig. 5). This can be set beside another of Chevreul’s circles (Fig. 6) which is divided into 72 hues. Chevreul’s color circles are described by Verena Schindler [9, pp. 66–68].
Color Circle, Fig. 5

Michel-Eugène Chevreul 1864. Color circle with hues shading into each other (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)

Color Circle, Fig. 6

Michel-Eugène Chevreul 1864. Color circle with 72 discrete hues (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)

The colors in Chevreul’s circle between the 5:00 o’clock and 7:00 o’clock positions are not visible in the spectrum and so have no place in Newton’s circle. However, if Newton had intended to represent seven hues only, with no shading from one named hue to the next, the gap between violet and red would be no more noticeable than that between red and orange. The hues are in the correct order and the sequence is continuous.

The First Color Circles Published in Color

The first color circles to be published in color appear in an enlarged edition of a book on miniature painting. The author of the first edition of 1673 has been identified as Claude Boutet, but the color circles were only added in the enlarged edition of 1708 in a new section on pastel painting. The unknown author of this later section writes: “Here are two circles by which one will be able to see how the primitive colors, yellow, fire red, crimson red and blue generate the other colors” [2, p. 57]. So these circles are demonstrations of subtractive mixing with paints (Fig. 7). The possibility of mixing a complete sequence of hues from just three “primitive colors” was already known at that time so the use of two “primitive” reds is striking. Perhaps the author did not think that any available red pigment could qualify as “true red” so two reds had to be used, one a yellowish red and the other bluish. And perhaps no single red could deliver a satisfactory orange as well as a satisfactory purple. In this respect these early color circles foreshadow the Color Bias Wheel devised by Michael Wilcox [10, p. 15]. To make sure that an artist can achieve vivid colors all round the circle, Wilcox has two blues and two yellows as well as two reds in his Color Bias Wheel.
Color Circle, Fig. 7

Color circles from the enlarged 1708 edition of the Treatise on Miniature Painting (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)


Moses Harris held to the belief that “all the variety of colours … can be formed from Red, Blue, and Yellow” [11, p. 3], but he seems to have recognized the shortcomings of available pigments. He explains that he “treats on colour in the abstract” [11, p. 7]. This suggests that he had in mind some kind of theoretical ideal. As he points out, “Colour which we may call material, or artificial, are very imperfect in themselves, and being made of various substances … maketh the colouring part extremely difficult …” [11, p. 7]. For Harris, red, blue, and yellow were “primitives” which could be mixed to produce the “mediates” purple, green, and orange. He does list representative pigments: vermillion, ultramarine, and king’s yellow for the “primitives” and sap green and red orpiment for two of the “mediates” (no pigment is listed for purple). The fact that he lists separate pigments for his “mediates” suggests that these pigments would have been used, in addition to vermillion, ultramarine, and king’s yellow, to paint the color circles in his book – this is to make his demonstration of the theory more convincing with acceptably vivid colors all round the circle (Fig. 8).
Color Circle, Fig. 8

Color circle by Moses Harris 1772 (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)

Harris was an entomologist as well as an accomplished artist. Reference to his color circles would have been helpful when identifying and recording the colors of butterflies and other insects, while the circles could also serve as a guide to mixing paints to match those colors. Furthermore, Harris may have been the first to point out that a color circle can reveal relationships between colors that would now be called complementary. He refers to “contrasting colors” that are “so frequently necessary in painting” [11, p. 6] and goes on to explain how one should “look for the colour … in the system, and directly opposite to it you will find the contrast wanted” [11, p. 6]. And he provides a kind of definition: “if the colours so mixed are possest of all their powers, they then compose a deep black” [11, p. 7]. One current definition of complementary colors is that they should mix to a neutral – white from additive mixture in the case of lights, gray from partitive mixing in the case of colored segments on a spinning disc, and near black from subtractive mixing in the case of paints. At the end of the book, Harris describes the phenomenon of colored shadows. He explains that a stick placed in the orange light of a candle will cast a blue shadow, this result being predictable from the positions of orange and blue on opposite sides of his circle. A more extensive discussion of complementary colors can be found under that heading in this encyclopedia.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is best known as a writer of novels, plays, and poetry, but he also wrote a book on color theory which remains influential today. Goethe was satisfied that “yellow, blue, and red, may be assumed as pure elementary colours, already existing; from these, violet, orange, and green, are the simplest combined results” [12, p. 224]. When these six colors are arranged in a circle, yellow is opposite violet, blue is opposite orange, and red is opposite green. Goethe places great emphasis on such relationships: “the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye” [12, p. 21]. This can be recognized in afterimages and Goethe describes his experience of a “beautiful sea-green” when a girl wearing a scarlet bodice moved out of sight [12, p. 22]. He argues that such experiences show how the eye demands completeness. The red bodice gave way to green as a union of blue and yellow. Goethe saw in afterimages “a natural phenomenon immediately applicable to aesthetic purposes” [12, p. 320]. The afterimage phenomenon provides another way of defining complementary relationships with the added claim by Goethe that such relationships are beautiful. So Goethe is reinforcing the notion that the color circle can be seen as a tool for developing harmonious color combinations.


Michel-Eugène Chevreul developed a set of nine color circles, graded from full hue (Fig. 6) to almost black, and each with 72 hues, as the basis of a comprehensive color order system. In his introduction to a translation of Chevreul’s book De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs, Faber Birren explains how “Chevreul devoted himself not only to color organization, color harmony, and contrast effects, but to methods of naming and designation of colors” [13, p. 29]. A special memorial edition of Chevreul’s book was published by the National Press of France in 1889 when Chevreul himself was 103 years old. The potential confusion between the physical and visual aspects of color is evident in a prefatory note to this edition: “In order to guarantee to the plates of this book the stability which their scientific nature requires … it was necessary to resort only to mineral colors whose stability was certain. … Since the three colors chosen by Chevreul as basic, red, yellow, blue, cannot be reproduced precisely by means of isolated materials, they were obtained by mixing” [13, p. 27]. If the “basic” colors red, yellow, and blue could only be obtained by mixing their status as “basic” would need to be clarified.


The primacy of red, yellow, and blue was challenged by Ewald Hering. The scientific orthodoxy that emerged during the nineteenth century was that three  primary colors had their counterparts in the human eye in the form of three different types of receptor cell, each tuned to one of these primaries. This notion was first proposed by George Palmer when he suggested that “the surface of the retina is compounded of particles of three different kinds, analogous to the three rays of light” [14, p. 41]. Thomas Young, working independently, came to a similar conclusion. Young suggested that the sensitive particles in the retina were associated with “the three principal colours, red, yellow, and blue” [15, p. 147]. In a subsequent lecture he referred to “three simple sensations … red, green and violet” [16, p. 440]. Hering could not reconcile any set of three primary colors with his own subjective experience. For Hering there are six basic color phenomena – six urfarben – white, black, yellow, red, blue, and green. Since it is possible to describe the hue of any color in relation to yellow, red, blue, and green, Hering proposed that “corresponding to the four hue variables … there are four physiological variables” [17, p. 48]. Hering, therefore, designed a color circle which represented colors simply as visual phenomena with yellow, red, blue, and green as primaries (Fig. 9).
Color Circle, Fig. 9

Color circles by Ewald Hering (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)

The Natural Color System (NCS)

Hering’s theories were developed in Sweden and are the basis for the Natural Color System, NCS (Fig. 10). As with Hering’s color circle, the NCS has four “elementary colors” which are defined in visual terms as a yellow that is neither greenish nor reddish, a red that is neither yellowish nor bluish, a blue that is nether reddish nor greenish, and a green that is neither bluish nor yellowish [18, p. 132]. It is important to note that the NCS was designed just as a means of describing colors and showing how they are related as visual phenomena. The NCS is “value neutral in that it does not give rules for what is ugly and what is attractive” [19, p. 4]. There are no claims that it is to be used as a guide to color harmony. It has been criticized for not having the degree of difference between neighboring colors the same all round the circle. Although the colors are shown in a continuous circle, the four elementary colors are to be understood as the beginnings and ends of four separate hue sequences. The colors between red and blue are equally spaced visually as are the colors between blue and green, but there is a greater degree of visual difference in the red to blue sequence than in the blue to green.
Color Circle, Fig. 10

Color circle of the Natural Color System, NCS (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)


Wilhelm Ostwald developed a color circle that is superficially similar to that of Hering and the NCS in that it is based on four rather than three “fundamental colors” (Fig. 11). However, these colors are not treated as the beginning and end points of four separate hue sequences but simply as landmarks in one continuous sequence. For Ostwald, the color opposite to a given color should be the one that is “most different” so that “the entire circle is filled with such pairs of contrasting colors, which shall be called complementary colors” [20, p. 34]. The complementary relationship is established by optical mixture using a spinning disc. Segments of yellow and red on a disc would blend to a single color when the disc is spun, the blend in this case appearing orange. The complementary relationship is established when the blend appears a neutral gray. Ostwald chose “a pure yellow that is neither greenish nor reddish” [20, p. 33] as the starting point for his hue sequence. This would correspond to the elementary yellow of Hering and the NCS but the complementary of this yellow, as established by the spinning disc technique, is not quite a blue that is neither reddish nor greenish but one that is slightly reddish which Ostwald identifies as “ultramarine blue.” Similarly if Ostwald’s fundamental red is neither yellowish nor bluish, its complementary is what Ostwald calls “sea green,” a green that is certainly bluish. So Ostwald’s four fundamental colors are not the exact equivalent of the Hering/NCS elementary colors. And Ostwald, unlike those who developed the NCS, did intend his system to be used for generating harmonious color combinations for application in the arts and design. For Ostwald his system represents “order” and he is famous for his “basic law”: “Harmony = Order” [20, p. 65].
Color Circle, Fig. 11

Color circle by Wilhelm Ostwald (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)


Ostwald’s ideas were taken up and developed by Aemilius Müller who produced his Swiss Colour Atlas using dyes rather than pigments. Müller’s color circle has 60 hue steps (Fig. 12). Müller also produced a number of designs with beautiful color gradations to demonstrated Ostwald’s “basic law.” Müller’s work is described by Stephanie Wettstein [21, pp. 144–149].
Color Circle, Fig. 12

Color circle by Aemilius Müller (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)

The CIE Chromaticity Diagram

Although not geometrically circular, the 1931 CIE chromaticity diagram can be regarded as a color circle in that it represents the pure spectral hues and the extra-spectral purples in a continuous sequence. The diagram is used in the international system for measuring color stimuli. The diagram is often shown in color but Roy Berns warns against this as being misleading [22, p. 61]. No printing inks can match the purity and intensity of the spectral lights themselves. It is better simply to show the line diagram marked out with color names, such as those proposed by Kenneth Kelly [23, p. 67], much as Newton did with the first color circle. The CIE diagram, with Kelly’s names, is shown in Fig. 13.
Color Circle, Fig. 13

CIE chromaticity diagram with color names proposed by Kenneth Kelly


Albert Henry Munsell developed his color system at the turn of the twentieth century and published A Color Notation in 1905. Munsell’s color circle has “five principal hues” [24, p. 20]. These are red, yellow, green, blue, and purple, which are spaced at equal intervals around the circle. In his sequence of hues, Munsell aimed at perceptual uniformity [2, p. 115]. Like Ostwald, Munsell believed in an ordered arrangement of colors as the key to harmony and suggested a number of paths through his system that would connect colors for a harmonious result. Figure 14 shows a page from the 1929 edition of the Munsell Book of Color. Twenty hues are included, each at several steps of increasing departure from neutral gray. Use of the CIE system to measure the Munsell color chips revealed a number of irregularities. A combination of instrumental measurement and visual judgments by members of an expert committee resulted in the Munsell renotations and the revised Munsell system that is widely used today.
Color Circle, Fig. 14

Color circle from the 1929 edition of the Munsell Book of Color (Reproduced from Ref. [6], with permission)

The Color Circle Today

Today there are color circles in use that are based on three, four, and five primaries, but the three-primary model remains dominant with the primaries red, yellow, and blue; the secondaries orange, purple, and green; and 12 hues altogether. This is born out by an appeal to the Internet. Of the first 100 images from a Google search, made on December 7, 2013, more than half were twelve-hue circles and nine of these were the circle designed by Johannes Itten with primaries and secondaries identified in the center (Fig. 15).
Color Circle, Fig. 15

Color circle by Johannes Itten as reconstructed by Lisa Hannaford


Itten’s circle is attractive, clear, and memorable, but it needs to be viewed with caution. Itten was an artist writing for students of art. Artists work with pigments and so the “color classification must be constructed in terms of the mixing of pigments” [25, p. 21]. But Itten defines his primaries in terms of appearance: “a red that is neither bluish nor yellowish; a yellow that is neither greenish nor reddish; and a blue that is neither greenish nor reddish” [25, p. 29]. Itten refers to green in these definitions, as does Hering in his definitions of urfarben, and green is one of the elementary colors of the NCS. Nevertheless, for Itten, green is a secondary color, a mixture of blue and yellow.

From the experience of working with a number of different paints, it is possible to judge, from their appearance, how useful a group of paints will be in the mixing process. Students can be misled by the Itten diagram and may blame themselves if they are unable to mix a satisfactory range of colors from red, yellow, and blue primaries as these are defined by Itten. As Harald Arnkil points out, “anyone who has tried to create Itten’s twelve-hue color circle according to his requirements will be frustrated to a lesser or greater degree” [26, p. 88]. A more satisfactory range of colors can be mixed with paints that are closer in appearance to the cyan, magenta, and yellow inks as used by printers. This is demonstrated in the entry on “Primary Colors” in this encyclopedia.

Itten’s color circle (Fig. 15) was recreated for the present entry by Lisa Hannaford using the computer program Illustrator. As displayed on the computer screen, Itten’s diagram is created with the additive primaries red, green, and blue. When printed in hard copy, for Itten’s book as well as from the computer file, the inks used are the subtractive primaries cyan, magenta, and yellow. The relationship between the additive primaries and the subtractive primaries are shown in a color circle first presented at a conference in 1978 [27, p. 167, 28, p. 3 and cover] (Fig. 16). For this diagram, cyan is identified as turquoise, which is a more familiar color name. A shape code identifies the additive primaries as circles and the subtractive primaries as squares.
Color Circle, Fig. 16

Color circle by Paul Green-Armytage showing the relationship between additive and subtractive primaries

Perhaps Itten could have acknowledged the shortcomings of available pigments and followed the example of Moses Harris by explaining how he “treats on colour in the abstract.” If the diagram is misleading as a guide to mixing paints, it is reasonable to wonder what purpose it is intended to serve. Arnkil asks this question and suggests that it may have been “associated with his idea of the 12-colour circle as the basis of colour harmony” [26, p. 88].

Itten follows Goethe in asserting the significance of the afterimage phenomenon for color harmony, and he claims that opposite colors in his circle are complementary. Harmonious color combinations can supposedly be found by drawing a regular geometric figure inside the circle. Lines passing through the center of the circle, equilateral triangles, isosceles triangles, squares, and rectangles, as they touch the colors in the circle, all point to harmonious color combinations. As well as complementary pairs, Itten illustrates harmonious triads and tetrads – combinations of three and four colors. No doubt this is a useful starting point for people who lack confidence, but closer scrutiny reveals a problem. Itten defines complementary relationships in three ways, all of which have been encountered in the work of others: subtractive mixing to near black (Harris), afterimages (Goethe), and additive mixing to neutral gray (Ostwald). The theory would be more convincing if these different ways of defining complementary relationships yielded the same pairs, but this is not always the case. The most dramatic variation is with blue. The complementary of blue is red-orange from subtractive mixture, yellow-orange as an afterimage, and yellow from additive mixture. If these pairs are to be opposite to each other in different circles, the distribution of  hues would need to be adjusted.

An Elastic Color Circle

Complementary relationships, as established in different ways, can be illustrated by stretching and compressing the color circle [29, p. 266]. With the elementary colors of the NCS as reference points, and by keeping yellow and red constantly at 12:00 o’clock and 3:00 o’clock, respectively, blue and green can be moved to new positions. The number of hue steps between the elementary colors will increase or decrease accordingly to bring the differently defined complementary pairs opposite to each other as shown in Fig. 17.
Color Circle, Fig. 17

Color circles with complementary colors opposite to each other according to three definitions. From left to right: subtractive mixture to near black; the generation of each other’s hue in afterimages; optical mixture to neutral gray


The color circle has a long history and is well established in color theory. It is used to represent colors as something physical, as lights, pigments, inks, or dyes, as well as colors as visual phenomena. It is used to illustrate relationships between colors, in systems of color classification and identification, as a guide to color mixing and as a tool in the search for harmonious color combinations. Although the sequence of hues is always the same, the intervals between hues can vary as the principles behind the construction of the circles varies. There is no single color circle that is “correct.” Rather than try to establish a single color circle as some kind of standard, or to insist on a single purpose for the color circle, it is more helpful to recognize that a color circle can embody a variety of information and that it may be necessary to stretch or compress the hues in the circle according to the information that is required.



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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Design and ArtCurtin UniversityPerthAustralia