Everyone is familiar with the colour spectrum. If you pass white sunlight through a prism then it splits into the component wavelengths. The shorter wavelengths appear blue, the longer wavelengths appear red, and in between we have the familiar colours that I learned as school as Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain, for the sequence red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet, and that I have since understood is taught in the US as a person: Roy G Biv. I wonder if there are any other mnemonics that people know of? Of course, many people believe that Newton was in error when he identified 7 colours in the spectrum – he was probably influenced by Aristotle who wrote about there being 7 fundamental colours as there are 7 tones in the musical octave. I’ve posted about the indigo issue before – http://colourware.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/indigo-a-colour-of-the-rainbow/ - so won’t repeat that here.
Newton was probably the first person to create a hue circle (others, such as Forsius, created colour cicles but often included white and black in the circles). Newton created a true hue cirlce where he took the colour spectrum and wrapped it around, noticing that the two ends of the spectrum (where the reds become bluish and the blues become reddish) look rather similar.
Of course, there was a gap because the two ends of the spectrum did not quite match and thus Newton had to add in some purplish colours – these are hues that are never seen in the spectrum (and are sometimes called extra-spectral hues or non-spectral hues). The hues in the spectrum can be created by a single wavelength; however, the extra-spectral hues only occur when we see several wavelengths at the same time. For example, when we see short and long wavelengths together we can see purple.
In my lecture at the University of Leeds (www.leeds.ac.uk) this week someone asked “Why do the two ends of the spectrum look similar at all when the light is so different physically (at one end the waves are short and high energy and at the other they are long and low energy)?” Very very good question – if changes in wavelengths change the hue why should wavelengths that are so different look so similar?
So, why is hue circular? The answer is that it has very little to do with wavelengths and physics and more to do with human physiology. The human visual system captures light with three classes of cell (called cones) in the retinae of the eye. The signals from these cones are processed by the human visual system to create opponent signals (red-green and yellow-blue). This puts red and green opposite each other and yellow blue opposite each other and results in the perception of hue being circular. It also explains why some hues particularly contrast – sometimes called complementary colour harmony.