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Who came up with the 12 step color wheel?

The 12-step color wheel is a fundamental tool used by artists, designers, and anyone who works with color. But who originally came up with this ingenious way of organizing colors? The development of the color wheel spans centuries and involves contributions from many different scientists, theorists, and artists.

Early Color Theory

The earliest foundations of color theory began in Ancient Greece with philosophers like Aristotle who observed that colors can be created by mixing light and dark pigments. In the centuries that followed, Isaac Newton advanced color science with his discovery that sunlight contained the full spectrum of color when passed through a prism. Newton created one of the first color circles in 1666 by arranging the rainbow colors into a logical order and connecting the ends to form a wheel.

In the 18th century, German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe explored the psychological impact of colors and categorized them into “plus” and “minus” groups. Around the same time, Moses Harris created one of the first geometric color wheels in his book Natural System of Colors. By the early 1800s, Philipp Otto Runge developed a comprehensive color sphere to show the relationships between colors.

The 12-Step Wheel

While earlier color wheels and theories laid the groundwork, the 12-step color wheel widely used today is often credited to German painter and professor Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In 1810, Goethe arranged the primary, secondary and tertiary colors into a circle divided into 12 sections. The primary colors were red, yellow and blue. The secondary colors — orange, green and violet — were created by mixing adjacent primary colors. Finally, the tertiary colors were created by mixing primary and secondary colors.

Goethe’s color wheel demonstrated how colors relate to one another and allowed artists to mix every possible hue systematically. Many artists and theorists built upon Goethe’s color wheel in the 19th century. In 1839, French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul improved on the 12-step model with his color wheel that gradated colors and showed their precise complementary shades on opposite sides of the circle.

American painter Albert Henry Munsell further developed the 12-step color wheel in the early 1900s with his symmetrical arrangement of hues around a central axis. Munsell’s color space became a standard used across various industries and is still influential in classifying color today.

Bauhaus and Modern Art

In the early 20th century, the German Bauhaus school adopted a standardized color wheel based on Goethe’s theories. Johannes Itten, a professor at the Bauhaus from 1919-1923, taught color theory by using a 12-part wheel which organized the primary, secondary and tertiary colors. Itten’s color wheel and course on color deeply influenced a generation of modern artists including Josef Albers and Wassily Kandinsky who spread these ideas in their own teachings.

As modern art movements like Fauvism and Abstract Expressionism exploded in color, a new generation of artists continued to explore and experiment with the 12-step color wheel. Contemporary artists like Joseph Albers created vivid compositions based on color relationships in his famous series Homage to the Square.

Basic 12-Step Color Wheel

Today the 12-step color wheel remains one of the most common models used in color theory. The following represents the most basic form:

Primary colors Red Yellow Blue
Secondary colors Orange Green Violet
Tertiary colors Red-orange Yellow-orange Yellow-green Blue-green Blue-violet Red-violet

Thisorganization demonstrates the interrelationships between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. The Wheel shows how secondary colors are created by mixing adjacent primary colors, while tertiary colors are created by mixing adjacent primary and secondary colors.

Color Relationships

Beyond arranging colors, the color wheel also helps demonstrate important color relationships:

  • Complementary colors – Colors located opposite each other on the wheel (for example, red and green). These color pairs create maximum contrast.
  • Analogous colors – Groups of colors located next to each other on the wheel (for example, red, red-orange, and orange). These colors create harmonious combinations.
  • Triadic colors – Colors spaced equally apart on the wheel (for example, red, yellow, blue). These are vibrant color combinations.
  • Monochromatic colors – Different tints and shades of a single hue. This creates a cohesive look.

These important relationships all stem from the organization of the 12-step color wheel.

Color Wheels for Digital Design

While the 12-step color wheel remains essential for painting and traditional arts, digital designers use color wheels based on RGB (red, green, blue) and CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) color models. These color wheels account for the combinations of light and pigment used in digital displays and printing.

RGB color wheels contain the primary colors red, green and blue. Combining RGB values in different percentages allows designers to create a full spectrum of digital colors. CMYK wheels use the primary colors cyan, magenta, yellow and black which form the basis of color printing. Designers mix percentages of CMYK to create an enormous array of printable color tones.

Importance of the Color Wheel

For centuries, color wheels have served artists and designers by providing a framework to understand color relationships. While the specifics have evolved, the 12-step color wheel pioneered by Goethe remains the most common model used today. The color wheel allows us to:

  • Understand how primary, secondary and tertiary colors interconnect
  • Systematically mix a gamut of colors by combining steps around the wheel
  • Identify complementary color harmonies
  • Pick analogous, triadic and monochromatic color schemes
  • Visually communicate color relationships

Goethe’s 12-step color wheel endures as a fundamental tool for visual arts, design and the understanding of color theory.


The 12-step color wheel has evolved over centuries through the work of great thinkers and artists. While Isaac Newton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and many others contributed to color wheels, the modern 12-step model is most widely credited to Goethe. His early 19th century wheel demonstrating the relationships between primary, secondary and tertiary colors laid the groundwork for color theory. Later theorists like Chevreul, Munsell and Itten expanded on Goethe’s model. Today, the 12-step color wheel remains an indispensable tool for mixing colors and understanding their interactions.