Why is it a Color “Wheel” and Not a Color “Line”?

This blog post was published in May of 2012 on EyeMath. It is being migrated to this blog, with a few minor changes.

I’ve been discussing color algorithms recently with a colleague at Visual Music Systems.

We’ve been talking about the hue-saturation-value model, which represents color in a more intuitive way for artists and designers than the red-green-blue model. The “hue” component is easily explained in terms of a color wheel.

Ever since I learned about the color wheel in art class as a young boy, I had been under the impression that the colors are cyclical; periodic. In other words, as you move through the color series, it repeats itself: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet…and then back to red. You may be thinking, yes of course…that’s how colors work. But now I have a question…


Consider five domains that can be used as the basis for inventing a color theory:

(1) the physics of light, (2) the human retina, (3) the human brain, (4) the nature of pigment and paint, and (5) visual communication and cultural conventions.

(1) In terms of light physics, the electromagnetic spectrum has a band visible to the human eye with violet at one end and red at the other. Beyond violet is ultraviolet, and beyond red is infrared. Once you pass out of the visible spectrum, there aint no comin’ back. There are no wheels in the electromagnetic spectrum.

(2) In terms of the human retina, our eyes can detect various wavelengths of light. It appears that our color vision system incorporates two schemes: (1) trichromatic (red-green-blue), and (2) the opponent process (red vs. green, blue vs. yellow, black vs. white). I don’t see anything that would lead me to believe that the retina “understands” colors in a periodic fashion, as represented in a color wheel. However, it may be that the retina “encourages” this model to be invented in the human brain…

(3) In terms of the brain, our internal representations of color don’t appear to be based on the one-dimensional electromagnetic spectrum. Other factors are more likely to have influence, such as the physiology of the retina, and the way pigments can be physically mixed together (a human activity dating back thousands of years).

(4) Pigment and paint are very physical materials that we manipulate (using subtractive color), thereby constituting a strong influence on how we think about and categorize color.

(5) Finally: visual communication and culture. This is the domain in which the color wheel was invented, with encouragement from the mixing properties of pigment, the physiology of the retina, and the mathematical processes that are formulated in our brains. (I should mention another influence: technology…such as computergraphical displays).


Consider the red-green-blue model, which defines a 3D color space – often represented as a cube. This is a common form of the additive color model. Within the volume of the cube, one can trace a circle, or a hexagon, or any other cyclical path one wishes to draw. This cyclical path defines a periodic color representation (a color wheel). A volume yields 2D shapes, traced onto planes that slice through the volume. It’s a process of reducing dimensions.

But the electromagnet spectrum is ONE-DIMENSIONAL. The physical basis for colored light cannot yield a higher-dimensional color space. The red-green-blue model (or any multi-dimensional space) therefore could not originate from the physics of light.


An alternate theory as to the origin of the color wheel is this: the color wheel was created by taking the two ends of the visible spectrum and connecting them to form a loop (and adding some purple to form a connective link). I just learned that Purple is NOT a spectral color (although “violet” is :) Purple can only be made by combining red and blue. Here’s an explanation by Deron Meranda, in a piece called…


And here’s a page about how purple is constructed in the retina: HOW CAN PURPLE EXIST?

Did the human mind and human society impose circularity onto the color spectrum in order to contain it? Was this encouraged by the physiology of our eyes, in which various wavelengths are perceived, and mixed (mapping from a one-dimensional color space to a higher-dimensional color space)? Or might it be more a matter of the influence of pigments, and the age-old technology of mixing paints?

Might the color wheel be a metaphorical blend between the color spectrum and the mixing behavior of pigment?

Similar questions can be applied to many mathematical concepts that we take for granted. We understand number and dimensionality because of the ways our bodies, and their senses, map reality to internal representations. And this ultimately influences culture and language, and the ways we discuss things…like color…which influences the algorithms we design.



2 thoughts on “Why is it a Color “Wheel” and Not a Color “Line”?

  1. Why is it a Color “Wheel” and Not a Color “Line”? | Eye Math

  2. The wheel and the line define the color spectrum from two completely different postulates depending on the intended purpose. I saw both of these representations as a kid and understood them to be just that; one defining the breakdown of light by frequency and one to illustrate the relative nature of mixing paints to shift color values in the plastic arts. Why do globes and
    maps always orient north?

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