Beginners: An Introduction to Color Theory

In the early 20th century, Johannes Itten’s theories on color changed the way artists and scientists viewed the spectrum of colors in the world around them. Here, we outline some of Itten’s basic tenets—many of which are still employed by artists today.

by Naomi Ekperigin

Itten's original color wheel.

Swiss painter and teacher Johannes Itten was a pivotal member of the Bauhaus, Germany’s most influential art and design school. Founded in 1919 and closed in 1933 under the threat of the Fascist party, the Bauhaus School primarily focused on expressionist art, design, and architecture. From 1919 to 1923, Itten was the main painter at the institution and taught a required introductory course that focused on form and color theory. The theories developed and taught in this class are still practiced by artists today and are very useful for beginning artists as they learn to create rich, realistic, and dynamic colors.

Itten's color wheel was a departure from the color wheels employed at his time. Many contained too few or too many colors, making it either difficult to find the connections between hues, or too complicated and rigid to facilitate instruction. Itten’s wheel contained twelve colors: the three primary colors, the three secondary, and the six tertiary colors.

Cafe Terrace at Night
by Vincent van Gogh, 1888, oil, 32 x 26.
Collection Rijksmuseum
Kroller-Mueller, Otterlo.


Newborn Child
by Georges de La Tour, ca.
1645, oil on canvas.
Collection Musée des Beaux-Arts,
Rennes, France.

Primary Colors are the building blocks for all other hues, and cannot be created by mixing any other pigments. They are blue, yellow, and red.

Secondary Colors are each created from two of the primaries. They are orange, green, and violet. Like the primary colors, they are equidistant from one another on the color wheel.

Tertiary Colors are formed by mixing a primary and secondary color. They are yellow-green, yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, and blue-green.

The artist’s most notable impact on present-day color theory was the association of certain colors with specific emotions. His book The Art of Color was a synopsis of his teachings at the Bauhaus, and was groundbreaking in its study of colors’ impact on the viewer. Like other artists and theorists before him, Itten studied colors scientifically as well as artistically. What set him apart from his contemporaries was the use of  psychoanalysis to inform his theories. He looked at the way colors impacted a person, as well as individuals’ perceptions of color.

Reading by Lamplight
by James McNeill Whistler,
1858, etching and drypoint
printed in black ink on
ivory laid paper, 6 13/16 x 4 9/16.
Collection The New York Public
Library, New York, New York.
Virgin of the Chancellor Rolin
by Jan van Eyck,
1435, oil on wood, 26 x 24.
Collection the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

To the artist-educator, there were four “qualities” of a color: hue, intensity, value, and temperature. Hue is generally defined as a source color, one of the twelve basic colors on the color wheel. Knowing the root hue allows one to mix the color that he or she sees using a basic palette. Value is the lightness or darkness of the color relative to white, black, and gray. Intensity is the brightness or dullness of a color, often determined by the amount of white or complement has been mixed with it. It is measured relative to the brightest color wheel hue that is closest to the color. Often the words chroma and saturation are used interchangeably with intensity.  Temperature, to Itten, was the idea of a color being “warm” or “cool”—terminology still used by artists.

Itten was also one of the first to develop successful methods of creating striking color contrasts. His seven methods were the contrast of saturation, contrast of light and dark, contrast of extension, complementary contrast, simultaneous contrast, contrast of hue, and the contrast of warm and cool.

Saturation relates to the degree of purity of a color. The contrast of saturation is the juxtaposition of pure, intense colors and dull colors. This can be seen in Georges de La Tour’s Newborn Child, as the women’s bright clothes, illuminated by candlelight, offer a sharp contrast to the dull background colors.

Contrast of light and dark is created when, as the name suggests, light and dark values of a color are juxtaposed. The most obvious examples of this are pen-and-ink and graphite drawings, as well as etchings and prints. You can see this at work in James McNeill Whistler’s Reading by Lamplight.

View From My Window, Eragny
by Camille Pissarro,
1886-1888, oil, 25 5/8 x 31 1/2.
Collection the Ashmolean Museum,
Lamentation Over the Dead Christ With the Saints Jerome, Paul, and Peter
by Alessandro Botticelli, ca. 1495,
tempera on panel, 42 x 28.
Collection the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan

The contrast of extension, also known as a contrast of proportion, is based on the relative areas of two or more areas of color, such as large and small, or much and little. In Pieter Brueghel’s Landscape With the Fall of Icarus, this contrast is at work in the juxtaposition of a large body of blue water and a small patch of sky.

A complementary contrast exists when two complementary colors (colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel) are placed side-by-side. Jan van Eyck’s Virgin of the Chancellor Rolin, the red and green motif (in the robe, lectern, and angel’s wing) is Itten’s primary example of this contrast.

Simultaneous contrast occurs when opposing colors are placed next to each other, creating the illusion of vibrations or shadows. In Vincent van Gogh’s Café Terrace at Night, the use of dark blue for the figures on the terrace makes them appear to be shadows, primarily because of the contrast between the light orange-yellow and dark blue.

A contrast of hue is the easiest to identify, as is created by the juxtaposition of different hues. Itten reasons that the intensity of the contrast diminishes as the hues move farther away from the primary colors. The most extreme example of this contrast is red/yellow/blue, and can be seen in Alessandro Boticelli’s Lamentation Over the Dead Christ With the Saints Jerome, Paul, and Peter.

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Pieter Brueghel,
ca. 1558, oil on wood, 29 x 44.
Collection the Musees
Royaux des Beaux-Arts de
Belgique, Brussels.

The contrast of warm and cool is created when colors that are considered "warm" or "cool" (as defined by Itten) are juxtaposed. Warm colors such as red, orange, yellow, and browns evoke a feeling of warmth and comfort, and are attractive to the viewer. As a result, objects painted this color appear to move forward. Cool colors, such as blue, green, and grays, recede into the background. Psychologically, Itten found that they were associated with sadness and melancholy. Many of the great Impressionist painters employed this contrast in their landscapes. In Camille Pissarro’s View From My Window, Eragny, the red/brown/orange of the house, juxtaposed with the cool sky, establish depth and perspective for the viewer.

When viewing works of art, most viewers see these contrasts at work, but do not know how to identify them. For an artist, knowledge of the basic tenets of color theory can help him or her evoke emotion and leave an impact on the viewer. And just as Itten’s methods can be adopted to yield certain effects, they can also be subverted to shock the viewer and show subject matter in startling ways.

Naomi Ekperigin is the editorial assistant for American Artist.

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