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Who wrote a dictionary of color combinations?

Color theory and combining colors effectively has long been an important topic for artists, designers, and anyone looking to create visual harmony. While many books and resources exist showing different color palettes and combinations, the history of who originally compiled this knowledge into an early definitive guide is not as well known.

Early Color Dictionaries

In the 18th and 19th centuries, several artists and theorists began publishing books classifying and categorizing colors and their relationships to one another. These early “dictionaries of color” laid the groundwork for modern color theory.

One of the first was George Field’s Chromatography; or, A Treatise on Colours and Pigments, and of Their Powers in Painting, published in 1817. Field, an English chemist, categorized colors and described their properties when mixed. His work was aimed at artists and reflected the art and scientific knowledge of the time.

In 1829, French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul published The Laws of Contrast of Color. Chevreul’s observations on how colors influence each other defined many principles of color theory. His findings showed how juxtaposing colors affects their properties.

German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe also studied color extensively. His 1810 book Theory of Colours classified colors by polarity and psychological effect. Though less grounded in science than Chevreul’s study, Goethe’s work was highly influential.

Ogden Rood’s Modern Color Wheel

While those 18th and 19th century works expanded color knowledge considerably, the most direct predecessor of today’s color combination guides came in 1879. That year, American physicist Ogden Rood published his book Modern Chromatics.

Rood took an empirical, scientific approach to colors. He introduced a color wheel depicting primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Rood showed how complementary colors opposite each other on the wheel create striking effects. His organized system for mixing paints gave artists and designers a practical model for choosing palettes.

Rood’s color wheel formed the basis for many modern versions. His research also helped establish important concepts like warm and cool colors. Though not the first color wheel, Rood’s brought order and structure to combining colors.

20th Century Color Systems

In the early 20th century, several art educators built upon Rood’s foundational color wheel. These later works incorporated new color theories and applications for the arts and industry.

Albert Henry Munsell developed an earlysystem organizing colors by hue, value, and chroma. He published his A Color Notation in 1905, updating it in later decades. Munsell’s scheme aimed to precisely classify colors for scientific and commercial use.

Bauhaus instructor Johannes Itten was hugely influential in art education. His 1961 book The Art of Color presented a color wheel and guide for mixing paints. Itten focused on color’s emotional impact and symbolic meaning, especially in modern art.

Swiss painter and teacher Johannes Itten’s color wheel from The Art of Color:

Color Description
Yellow Warm, exciting
Yellow-Orange Warm, vivid
Orange Warm, vigorous
Red-Orange Warm, passionate
Red Warm, powerful
Red-Violet Still, serious
Violet Sensitive, mysterious
Blue-Violet Cool, receding
Blue Cool, calming
Blue-Green Cool, peaceful
Green Balanced, tranquil
Yellow-Green Fresh, lively

German-American designer Josef Albers’s 1963 volume Interaction of Color changed how art students learned color theory. Albers focused on the relativistic, unstable nature of color and its effects. His hands-on exercises demonstrated color’s complexity.

In the 1970s and 80s, American color theorist Faber Birren wrote extensively about color and human perception. He compiled practical guides for designers through his research at X-Rite company. Birren’s books, like 1950’s Principles of Color, connected color to psychology and physiology.

Modern Color Combination Guidance

Those earlier color theorists established the essential knowledge for today’s color combination guides and resources. While the fundamentals remain unchanged, new formats and applications have emerged.

Digital tools now help designers generate, test, and save color palettes. Adobe’s Color CC provides a color wheel to find compatible shades. Websites like Coolors let users create and share palettes.

Many online articles and videos offer tips for mixing colors. Popular advice includes using the 60-30-10 rule, choosing colors with shared undertones, and utilizing color triangle relationships.

Publications and courses on graphic and web design often include sections or lessons on effective color combinations. Modern color theory has expanded beyond the fine arts into digital and commercial fields.

Key Takeaways on Color Guide History

While color theory principles have existed for centuries, several key figures helped organize and spread color knowledge to modern artists and designers:

  • Michel-Eugène Chevreul – Identified how colors influence each other
  • Ogden Rood – Created a structured color wheel
  • Johannes Itten – Connected color to emotion and symbolism
  • Josef Albers – Demonstrated the instability and relativity of color
  • Faber Birren – Applied color research to design fields

Digital tools have also enabled more people to apply classic color theories. However, the core foundations of color relationship remain rooted in those early explorations by artists and scientists seeking to bring order and meaning to the world of color.

So while modern color combination guidance owes much to pioneers of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the digital age has opened up and expanded their discoveries to new audiences and applications.


In summary, the history of color combination guidance has its roots in the early color theory research of scientists and artists like Field, Chevreul, Goethe and Rood. Their studies of color physics and visual harmony laid the groundwork for the color wheels, schemas, and practical guides that emerged later from thinkers like Itten, Albers, Birren and others. While digital tools have enhanced access to color knowledge, the fundamentals of combining colors effectively still derive from those early explorations into the nature and relationships of color.