Winsor & Newton Archive: Items of Intrigue – Ostwald’s Groundbreaking Innovation

Colours have fascinated humans for centuries, and we have long sought to understand and organise them. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Wilhelm Ostwald, a German chemist who famously rejected Albert Einstein’s job application, did exactly this when he introduced a ground-breaking innovation: the colour solid. 

Though it may look like a giant spinning top, this object, also known as the colour sphere or the colour wheel, is in fact a 3D physical representation of Ostwald’s world-famous colour theory. The colour solid reveals 24 distinct triangles, corresponding to the standard hues arranged akin to a colour wheel. Every triangle contains 28 monochromatic colour swatches of the standard hue. These are carefully ordered in a pattern of neutral, full and mixed colours.

The upper apex displays tints, or standard hues mixed with white. The lower apex showcases shades, or those mixed with black. The mixed colours occupy the interior of the solid, while the purer colour is near the circumference. This showcases the three fundamental properties of colour: hue, saturation and lightness.  

Ostwald’s colour solid was a success. But in 1901, four years before the release of his momentous theory of relativity, Albert Einstein applied to be an assistant in Ostwald’s lab, and he was turned down. Luckily, any hard feelings were forgotten during both pioneers’ later careers. Ostwald even nominated Einstein for the Nobel Prize in 1910 and 1913.

So, how did this colour wheel find itself in the Winsor & Newton archive? In 1930 the company translated Ostwald’s book on colour theory from German into English, meaning many more people could access its information. Later still, the Winsor & Newton Ostwald Watercolour travel tin was designed, so artists could now take Ostwald’s expertise with them wherever they went. 

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