What Is Newton's Theory of Color?

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You may remember Isaac Newton and his theories on gravity -- a falling apple was involved -- but he was a scholar with a wide range of interests, including physics, math and optics. His "theory of color" is one of his major contributions to optics. Newton found that color is a property of white light.

Newton Explains Color

Scientists suspected that light had something to do with color, but they weren't quite sure how it worked. One of Newton's peers, Robert Hooke, claimed that color was a measure of relative darkness added to ordinary light, but Newton disagreed. He used a prism to show how color is an intrinsic property of light that can be separated, then reassembled. From this experiment, Newton extrapolated that color comes from light bouncing off objects like waves, and is not a property of the objects themselves.

Newton and the Color Wheel

Newton said that seven major categories of color appear, produced by the bend in their wavelength when the light strikes an object. He identified these categories as red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet, and he arranged them in order from warmest to coolest, in a circle called a color wheel. He was one of the first to observe that "primary" colors (red, blue and yellow) could be combined to create "secondary" colors (green, orange and purples.)

On Newton's color wheel, colors that were directly across from one another were said to complement each other. When displayed together, they heightened each others' effects.

Implications for Design

Designers use the color wheel to compose a room's palette, usually in one of three ways:

  • Analogous colors: These lie next to each other on the color wheel, creating a harmonious effect. Green and blue are good examples of analogous colors that are commonly used together.
  • Complementary colors: Directly across from each other on the color wheel, these colors create bright, vibrant contrast -- think the blue and orange of sports teams. If it seems like too much, use pastels or break up colored pieces with neutrals like white or pale gray.
  • The color triad: In a triad, three colors are directly across from each other on the color wheel, creating a bold color scheme that doesn't overwhelm. 

Colors can also generate an emotional response, as demonstrated by professor and visual artist Frank Vodvarka. Warmer colors are associated with motion and activity, while cooler colors subdue and have a relaxing effect.

The color wheel doesn't create hard-and-fast rules, but it's a good way to generate ideas for a room. As an experiment, pick up paint swatch cards and make your own color wheel. You may be surprised by the combinations you find.

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