How does colour affect our lives? Chapter one: theories of colour

Colour Theorists have been working for centuries to understand and harness the powers of colours. Colour has always been with us, but it wasn’t until Isaac Newton developed the first colour system that defined the seven distinct colours of the spectrum, that we fully started to understand colour. Within this chapter I hope to show the major theorists to date that have influenced the way that we view colour. They have endeavoured to aid students in their work so that they can use colour appropriately.


Josef Albers was one of the leading teachers of Colour. He is famed for his book on the ‘Interaction of Color’ that teaches us direct perception of colour rather than theories of colour. He believed that to be musical you will need more than knowledge of acoustics; the same can be said for art. Understanding colour does not automatically give you the ability to understand art.

In music we can learn the scales and then progress to chords. Further learning can teach us the entire musical library, but if there is no talent present then the music will not feel anything more than notes on a piece of paper. In art, we learn the same, how to paint, how to draw, how to communicate through design. Alongside all of this there must be something that is individual and characteristic of your own person, otherwise, like music it is just theory.


Johannes Itten was born in 1888 in Switzerland. He studied under Aldolph Holzell in Germany after which he joined the Bauhaus in 1919. He took with him fourteen of his students. He had a different view from most about colour. He believed that helping a student discover his subjective forms and colours is to help him discover himself. Although both Albers and Itten had the same objective in mind they both wanted to teach in very different ways. If the student wanted to learn theory to develop into practice then Itten’s class would be suitable.

He stated in his book that:

“In order to learn the objective principles of color, take brush in hand and reproduce the charts and exercises in this book”. 01

He talked about his lessons at the Bauhaus. He feels that a calculated piece of work is the best start to learning composition and colour theory. Then once this is learned it leaves room for the student to develop his or hers own identity and structures. Albers felt that learning all the facts took away from the creativity of the painter and felt it was more successful to learn whilst practicing.

The 12-hue colour circle is a design that emphasises the three primary colours of paint – red, blue and yellow. We place yellow at the top, red in the bottom right and blue in the bottom left. Around this three more triangles can be set up to show the colour mixtures of the primary colours. Yellow and red make what is known to us as ‘orange’.

Red and Blue make a colour commonly known as ‘violet’, leaving blue and yellow to produce a ‘green’. Around all of this we can create the 12-hue circle. Each primary and secondary colour has been identified and now there must be one colour in between all of these. The colours that are produced from this are known as ‘yellow-orange’, ‘red-orange’, ‘red-violet’ and so on… The painter reads colour in a different way to most.

They will often have to distinguish between what is pigment and what is real. Light can affect the judgement of their work, but the accomplished painter can overcome these problems. The painter will see two different types of colour – perceptual colour and primary colour. The latter is the paint on the palette and will be used to interpret whatever the painter is trying to say. They have the choice to acknowledge light or ignore its power over their sensations.


Cézanne stated in 1904:

“Light does not exist for the painter” 02

By this he meant precisely this. He has only the pigment on his palette and so he must do with this whatever he feels, and light will not affect the painting until he paints, regarding that he so wishes to include elements of light. The work of artists has always been linked to their love of colour and its involvement in art. Such people as Albers, Rothko and Kandinsky were big influences in this area. They held very strong views on colour and throughout their lives they work extensively with theories and solutions to overcome obstacles that appeared in their work, eventually becoming predominant figures in colour theory.

Johannes Itten was famed for his work with the Bauhaus and his book ‘The Art of Color’, but was more involved in the textiles industry than as a painter. He lived his life teaching students how to control colour and use it in an effective way. His books, both ‘The Art of Color’ and the hand-bagged sized version ‘The Elements of Color’ have helped me greatly to understand colour mixtures and the vast difference between what is, for example, red and what is pure red. Along with Albers I have been able to realise the difference between color and the strengths and qualities that each color contains.

End notes
01 / Page 28: Johannes Itten, 1970. The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Color System of Johannes Itten Based on His Book the Art of Color. 1 Edition. John Wiley & Sons.
02 / Page 32: 1995. Colour: Art and Science (Darwin College Lectures). Edition. Cambridge University Press.

01 Introduction
02 Chapter one: theories of colour
03 Chapter two: colour in art
04 Chapter three: subtractive & additive colour systems
05 Chapter four: science in colour
06 Chapter five: colour therapy & alternative therapies
07 Conclusion


Having worked in design for the past decade, Daniel started as a discussion of timeless, modernist product design. Trained as a graphic designer, he also has an avid interest in typography. You can follow him on Twitter @ateliertally.

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