Color Spectrum: The Meaning of Colors and How to Use Them

The color spectrum contains a range of colors according to their wavelengths, from the shortest to the longest. The visible color spectrum consists of the colors of the rainbow, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, sometimes including cyan and indigo. The color spectrum is spectral color, but scientists, philosophers, artists and designers use the colors to create a cohesive way to organize color and create designs with color combinations that resonate.

Discovery of the Color Spectrum

Color Spectrum: The Meaning of Colors

Scientists and philosophers have always been fascinated by light and colors. Aristotle believed that black and white, or darkness and lightness, were the source of all colors. Most scientists held these beliefs until the work of Isaac Newton. Using prisms, Newton discovered that light contained a visible color spectrum. These spectrum colors are subjective as the colors bleed into one another, but Newton identified seven colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Now scientists understand that the visible color spectrum represents the narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum that we can see with our eyes. The cones in our eyes are responsive to the wavelengths of each color within the visible color spectrum. The red on one end of the spectrum has the longest wavelength, while violet on the other end has the shortest wavelength.

Development of the Visual Color Spectrum

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer that we know best for his prose and poetry, but he also wrote an influential book on color. His Theory of Colors challenged Newton’s scientific description of color. Instead, he said that the way we see color is different for every person. Goethe hypothesized that the way each person sees color is related to the interaction of light with the human brain.

His work influenced the work of the painter and engraver Jacob Christoph Le Blon. Le Blon is credited with developing three-four color printing based on the RYB model, which transitioned into the modern CMYK model that is still prevalent in printing today. Le Blon identified red, blue, and yellow as primaries that he could use to mix to create other colors.

Creation of the Color Wheel

Creation of the Color Wheel

The color wheel is the visible representation of spectral colors that color theorists have arranged in a circular format. This format allows artists and designers to use the colors by understanding each spectrum color in relation to the other colors.

This visual representation of color went through many iterations, but with the foundation laid by Le Blon, artists and color theories of the late 19th and early 20th century developed a wheel based on the three primary colors red, blue, and yellow.

From these primary colors, artists developed secondary and tertiary colors to help complement and create harmonies between the primary colors. This modern color wheel is the foundation for color use in art, design, and printing.

The Symbolism of the Colors of the Spectrum

Humans have always had a deep connection with colors. Ancient people assigned meanings to colors that correspond with our modern ideas about color including red symbolizing war and green symbolizing rebirth and growth.

Scientists and psychologists made the study of colors more scientific in the late 19th century. They began to study how colors affect our moods and behavior. Artists, interior decorators, and graphic designers consider the symbolism of the colors of the spectrum as they employ them in their designs to produce the desired effect.


Red is a powerful and dynamic color that we associate with strong emotions. Psychological studies have backed this association. Some studies have found that people exposed to red have faster rates of movement, and increased blood pressure and heart rate, which signify excitement and higher energy. In the west, red symbolizes love and romance, sacrifice and courage, and danger. In eastern cultures like China, brides wear red because it symbolizes prosperity and happiness.


Orange is a warm and vivid color that symbolizes creativity and energy. This color also signifies transformation and balance. This association is largely because of its location between the passion and energy of red and yellow, which symbolizes the intellect.


We associate yellow with the sun and daylight. Thus it is no surprise that yellow symbolizes happiness and optimism. Yellow also has a positive association in eastern cultures, where it is a symbol of wealth and nobility. There are also negative associations with yellow including cowardice and sickness.


Green is one of the most predominant colors in the natural world. Humans have powerful associations with green because it is one of the colors we see most often. We associate green with growth, rebirth, and health. Green occupies a central place in spectral color. Thus, many philosophers see green as the color of balance. Green is also the opposite color of energetic red on the color wheel and represents a calming presence.


Blue is one of the best-loved colors of the spectrum. We associate blue with trust and reliability, wisdom and loyalty, and peace. Philosophers and scientists have hypothesized why people love blue. Some of the hypothesized reasons include our natural positive associations with the sky and the sea. Scientific studies have shown that the color blue does have a calming effect on the mind and body, reducing stress and anxiety levels.


Violet is the last visible color in spectral light, right before ultraviolet light, which is not visible as a color. Violet, or purple, has long associations with royalty as the dye for purple in the ancient world was expensive and rare. Violet also symbolizes repentance and sorrow in Christian traditions. In eastern traditions, violet symbolizes the color of enlightenment.

Creating Harmony with Colors of the Spectrum

Color theorists organized the spectrum of colors into the color wheel, which helped them to use color more effectively. Using the color wheel, you can create compelling color schemes for your home.

Complementary Colors

Complementary colors

You can find complementary color pairings located across from each other on the color wheel. These color combinations create vibrant and high-contrast combinations that enliven the style of your designs. These combinations include a warm and a cool hue. Common complementary pairs include reds and greens, blues and oranges, and purples and yellows.

Analogous Colors

Analogous colors

Analogous colors are located next to each other on the color spectrum/wheel. Analogous color schemes pair colors with the same color temperature together. In other words, you pair a warm yellow tone with warm orange-yellow and orange. Likewise, pair cool blue with blue-green and blue. These color schemes are effective in creating a harmonious look.

Triadic Colors

Tertiary colors for color spectrum

Color practicians base triadic color schemes on colors that are separated evenly around the color wheel. Examples of tertiary color schemes include using red, blue, and yellow or another using purple, green, and orange. While bold, these color schemes are effective because they provide a balance of warm and cool colors.

Monochromatic Colors

Monochromatic color schemes are those that utilize shades of a single color in their design. For example, monochromatic palettes that use shades of blue might include navy, slate, sky, and cerulean blue. These palettes often employ the use of different textures and patterns to add interest to the design. Monochromatic designs have a simple yet cohesive effect.