An Incomplete History of Color Theory

Lab Reports, Timelines

Color tells a story. Depending on our background and experiences, colors indicate meaning without words. It can demand attention and set a certain mood. Color has not always been well understood, however, and still continues to be an object of serious thinking. 

As students of data visualization, color is one of the tools that we have at our disposal to aid our audience in understanding the story that we are trying to tell with our visualizations. This timeline is a brief and incomplete history of the way that philosophers have attempted to think about color throughout time. 


For this timeline, I used Knight Lab’s Timeline program. Using a Google Sheet provided by the program creators, I was able to input information that was automatically placed in a visually appealing timeline format. The sheet allowed me to input date, title, images, descriptions, and the location for sources used.

This program is, as far as I’m aware, the best tool available for creating such a timeline, particularly given my limited programming and design skills. This is not something that I would be able to build from scratch. It provides a visually appealing, easy-to-read and easy-to-use tool that makes understanding chronological relationships more manageable.  


To choose the events that I did, I conducted a basic search for the history of color theory. Because I was not well-acquainted with the topic despite my background as a painter, I chose people that were frequently mentioned in research articles, which is how I got started with Sir Isaac Newton, the creator of the first color wheel.

The Timeline 

An Incomplete History of Color Theory

The timeline focuses primarily on early color theory. It starts with artist Leon Battista Alberti’s thinking on color in the 1400s, though it could have started even earlier with the thinking of Aristotle. The timeline covers five people and spans about 400 years, which is only representative of a very small sliver of literature on color theory. It focuses primarily on philosophers (with the exception of Alberti, an artist) as an attempt to limit the scope of the timeline.

It is difficult to interpret the timeline due to its limited scope, but one can begin to see the way that color theory began to intersect with psychological ideas, particularly in Goethe’s work which explored the emotional aspects of color and attributed certain colors to certain moods or characteristics as opposed to viewing color through a “purely scientific” lens like Newton.


As the title of the timeline states, this is a (woefully) incomplete history of color theory. There are ideas about color coming from philosophy (whose ideas dominate my timeline), psychology, fine art, and art history, among other disciplines. To represent the entirety of this history would be extremely difficult and beyond the scope of this class. That being said, a slightly more comprehensive history of color theory and thought would be preferred to get a fuller idea of its development over time.