Ben Barnhart

Ben Barnhart

July 12, 2021
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July 12, 2021
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Remember that handy acronym you probably learned growing up: "ROY G. BIV"?

If you were paying attention in school, you’ll remember that this acronym is supposed to help you remember the order of the colors which make up the rainbow: 

  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Green
  • Blue
  • Indigo
  • Violet
Image Source: Mateus Campos Felipe 

But why does it matter, you might ask? Well, if you’re a designer, being familiar with the spectrum of colors that can be used in design is essential. This article will talk about the history behind the rainbow colors and discuss how to use each color in your designs. 

We’re going back to the basics to discuss the color wheel and how colors can make an audience feel. It’s no secret that specific colors evoke different emotions in an audience. Some create a happy, nostalgic feeling, and others evoke feelings of power and passion. 

When you’re creating designs, you need to be aware of each color’s effect on the overall reaction to your piece. 

That got us thinking about the rainbow. Let’s dive into it.  

What is the History Behind the Colors of the Rainbow?

We’ve all seen how breathtaking a natural rainbow looks after a rainstorm. As a kid, running to try to find the fabled "pot of gold" at the end of the rainbow was a major (albeit unattainable) goal. 

But most people probably haven’t put much thought into the history of rainbows.

Sure, it’s just a beam of light in the sky that’s pretty to look at. But the history behind the seven colors of the rainbow isn’t so simple. 

We did some digging and discovered that the history behind the colors of the rainbow is much more exciting and scientific than you might think. 

Spoiler alert: it involves some famous dead guys, a magic number, and music. 

Let’s start by talking about the visible spectrum of light. 

The Visible Spectrum of Light

We have the brilliant Sir Isaac Newton to thank for everything we know about rainbows today.

Sir Isaac Newton was an all-around genius, mathematician, astronomer, and author widely recognized as one of the greatest minds of all time. 

I for Isaac Newton

I for Isaac Newton designed by Diana Urquiza Negrete. Connect with them on Dribbble; the global community for designers and creative professionals.

He is well-known for his mathematical equations, discovering and defining the laws of gravity, and discovering how we perceive color.

In the 17th century, Newton discovered the visible spectrum of light. The visual spectrum of light creates the rainbow colors that we see in the sky after a storm. 

He discovered this by breaking apart white light using water droplets and uncovered the visual spectrum of colored light. 

But, the rainbow isn’t automatically separated into a certain number of distinct colors. It is a spectrum of colors that blurs together. 

Newton decided to separate the spectrum to make the colors easier to refer to and understand, and that is how we ended up with the colors of the rainbow. 

But why seven colors? That’s a great question. 

Allow us to take you even further down this rabbit hole. Let’s talk about the magic of the number seven.

The Magic Of Seven

Seven is a lucky number. We all know that. 

But there is much more to that number than you might think. And it all starts way back in Ancient Greece with a guy named Pythagoras.

Pythagoras of Samos was a Greek philosopher who lived during the 6th century BC. As an early philosopher, he influenced some of the most famous philosophers we know of today, including Plato and Aristotle. 

We’ve got him to thank for (probably) discovering the Pythagorean theorem, the sphericity of the Earth, and identifying the morning and evening stars as Venus. 

Pythagoras

Pythagoras designed by Oleg Tischenkov. Connect with them on Dribbble; the global community for designers and creative professionals.

And this guy loved numbers, specifically the number seven.

Pythagoras had a theory that seven is a magical number. According to him, it is the sum of the three spiritual forces (father, son, holy ghost) and the four materials (earth, wind, fire, water). 

He also discovered that the seven musical notes could be transformed into mathematical equations. Keep this in mind - we’ll come back to it later. 

And if you think about it, seven really is a number that pops up everywhere. The seven deadly sins, the seven days of the week, and the seven wonders of the world, to name just a few.

Newton was undoubtedly aware of the magic of the number seven. As a big fan of Pythagoras, he actively agreed with the concept of the magic of seven. 

So, when Newton set out to separate the colors of the rainbow, he initially selected only five colors to define the spectrum of colors. These colors were red, yellow, green, blue, and purple.

But, to honor the magic of the number seven, he went back and added two more colors: orange and indigo. 

He did this to acknowledge and confirm Pythagoras’ theory that there is a link between colors and music. Because there are seven musical notes, Newton thought there should be seven colors to match each musical note. 

And thus, the seven colors of the rainbow were born. 

Let’s talk a little bit about the color spectrum and how it can be broken down. 

The Color Wheel

3D | Pride Flag

3D | Pride Flag designed by Ty Fortune. Connect with them on Dribbble; the global community for designers and creative professionals.

So, now that we’ve covered the history lesson, let’s talk about how this impacts us in the 21st century. 

The color wheel is an essential part of design and art. If you went to design school, this might be a bit of a recap, but if you’re a DIY designer looking to brush up on your design knowledge, this is invaluable information.  

Knowing the connection between color combinations and the way that specific colors complement or clash is a fundamental skill for designers.

So, let’s talk about the color wheel. 

Image Source: Copic Marker Tutorials

You probably remember this image from school.

Also created by our good friend Sir Isaac Newton, the color wheel makes it easier to find relationships between the colors. Because the light spectrum is a straight line, it needed to be amended to create what we now know as the color wheel.

Newton arranged the seven musical notes and placed corresponding colors next to their respective musical notes to create the color wheel. 

Fun fact: If you spin the color wheel quickly enough, you will see only white. 

Quick physics lesson for you: colors are visible light that has a specific wavelength. We see all colors in light waves. 

Black and white are not considered colors because they do not have their own wavelengths. 

Simply put, white light comprises all color wavelengths, while black is the absence of any visible light. So, when you spin the color wheel and see white, it is because your eye is picking up all color wavelengths simultaneously.

In the color wheel, there are:

  • 3 primary colors: red, yellow, and blue
  • 3 secondary colors: orange, green, and violet
  • 6 tertiary colors: red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, and red-violet

Primary colors cannot be produced by mixing other colors. Secondary colors are created by combining two primary colors. And tertiary colors are formed by mixing a primary and secondary color. 

You might notice one color of the rainbow is missing from the primary and secondary colors: Indigo. Indigo is a blue-violet color. 

Its absence from the color wheel and its similarities to blue and violet make it the most controversial rainbow color. We’ll talk more about that later. 

It’s also important to note the connection between colors that are opposite from each other on the color wheel. These are called complementary colors.

These are the three sets of basic complementary colors:

  • Yellow and purple 
  • Blue and orange
  • Red and green

Now that we’ve covered the history of the rainbow colors and their relationships, let’s talk about each color individually. 

What are the Seven Colors of the Rainbow?

The seven basic colors of the rainbow are the main colors used in design and art. 

Colors all have their own connotation and subconscious connections. These vary from person to person, but there are some overarching themes that each color represents within most of modern culture.

Having a grasp on these colors and their meanings is crucial for graphic designers, interior decorators, artists, and more. 

There is a rare condition called Synesthesia that creates an effect in which interacting with something sensory (music, food, colors, etc.) can stimulate several senses at once. This condition impacts a small number of the population but is nonetheless fascinating regarding how we perceive color.  

People who have color synesthesia (the most common form of this condition) can perceive color as connecting to a certain number, letter, or feeling. 

People without synesthesia experience this on a smaller scale. Many connect a particular color with their own memories or collective memories of a season, feeling, or piece of media.

Colors can impact moods both positively and negatively. And you don’t need to be a synesthete to feel it. 

This is something designers can use to their advantage when creating art. But keep in mind, colors might mean one thing in Western cultures and an entirely different thing for another culture.

Let’s take a look at the most common interpretations of these colors. 

Red 

Image Source: (Left) Alexander Mils | (Right) Daniele Levis Pelusi

Red is the color of passion, fire, and love. It is also a color that can represent blood, gore, and war. 

A deep red has a sensual, powerful energy. However, using bright red in a design can create a brilliant pop of color. 

When coupled with muted colors, it can stand out and be a statement color. When you pair it with green, it can represent Christmas or winter themes.

Overall, using red in your designs is a powerful statement, but it can be overwhelming and overpowering if not used correctly. 

Orange

Image Source: (Left) Nico Mksmc | (Right) Oleg Laptev 

The color orange is a vibrant, rich color that vibrates with energy. It is a color strongly associated with youth, flamboyance, and creativity. 

Certain orange hues can remind people of the leaves in the fall. Others bring up memories of childhood and summer. 

Orange is a secondary color that comes from mixing red and yellow. It combines the best things about both colors and incorporates them into designs.

Using orange in design can have the same powerful connotations as red without being so sharp. It also has the same exciting edge that yellow has without being too bright. 

Yellow

Image Source: (Left) Jason Leung | (Right) Markus Spiske 

Yellow is a light, fun color that evokes feelings of summer and citrus. It is also one of the three primary colors.

The color yellow is the brightest color on this list and can be used in design to bring up feelings of happiness and warmth. It is the color of sunflowers, citrus fruit, and heat.

Light yellow brings a sense of calm and serenity to designs, while bright yellow is a ray of sunshine. 

Mustard yellow is trendy in design lately, especially in interior and fashion design. 

Yellow has different meanings in different countries. For example, in Japan, yellow is a color of courage. In Egypt, it represents mourning. 

Green

Image Source: (Left) Rohit Ranwa | (Right) Ateke Iranmanesh 

Green is an earthy color that fondly reminds people of nature and being outside.

Using the color green in a design brings your work down to earth. It has a crisp, relaxing effect on viewers. 

This stabilizing color can have a subduing quality when used correctly. It is also the color of money, so it can be a signifier of wealth or luxury. 

In 2021, two significant design trends were natural colors and jewel tones. Green fits right into both trends, depending on which hue you use. 

Emerald green is a perfect jewel tone that has been trendy in interior design as of late.

And for the natural look, lighter greens have an energetic appeal, while dark green is more stable and calm. 

Blue

Image Source: (Left) Mathias P.R. Reding | (Right) Alex Shutin 

Blue is the color of the sea, and it brings up feelings of being near the water. 

Whether you grew up near the ocean or just by a local swimming pool, many childhood memories are formed in the water.

It can also be a color that evokes melancholy or sadness. In literature and pop culture, to be blue is to be sad. 

The color blue can be used in many different ways depending on the hue. Light blue is refreshing and exciting, while dark blue is stoic and reliable. 

Blue is also considered to be a reliable, trustworthy color. Because of this, it is often used for brand designs. It's also a popular branding color for social media platforms. We’re looking at you, Facebook and Twitter. 

Overall, blue is a great color to use for design and is incredibly versatile.

Indigo

Image Source: (Left) Fakurian Design | (Right) FOODISM360

Indigo is a controversial color for this list. It’s somewhere between violet and blue, and is the only color in the rainbow that isn’t a primary or secondary color.

Some might say indigo doesn't belong in this list, but we’re not going to color bash here. 

Sure, indigo might be a bit of a black sheep, but it can be powerful when used in design. 

Indigo is the color of blue jeans. And because of the strong connection between blue jeans and American culture, indigo can represent a pure, all-American aesthetic. 

The color indigo can also be an opulent, rich color. It’s quite moody and solemn, but it can be an excellent color for graphic design and interior design when used right.

Violet

Image Source: (Left) Daniele Levis Pelusi | (Right) Sharon McCutcheon

Violet is a playful, fun color that has a youthful feel to it. It is a secondary color that we get from mixing blue and red. 

If violet were a season, it would be spring. It also has strong connections with spirituality. 

Violet is both a warm and cool color. Because of this, it will appear differently depending on which colors you place it with.

The color violet can be viewed as a romantic color, much like reds and pinks. It is also the color of valentines and spring flowers. 

Wrap Up

And that’s a wrap on rainbow colors! You now know way more about the rainbow than you probably ever thought you would.

Hopefully, this has inspired you to create your own designs using the colors of the rainbow. With Vectornator, creating designs is easy.

We’d love to see the designs you create; follow us on social media and tag us so we can see the work you create. We might even share it on our socials. 


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