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The Art of Colour

The Art of Colour
By Sarah Van Arsdale

In the mid 1900s, Johannes Itten developed a new kind of colour wheel that changed the way colour was seen, influencing artists and designers right up to the present moment. The Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany was home to many artists whose influence is still felt today in the worlds of art and design. It was there that Itten developed his book, "The Art of colour," which was the definitive compilation of what was taught in the Basic Course which Itten oversaw, at the Bauhaus.

Itten's colour wheel took into consideration the subjective feeling that's associated with objective colour, and the psychic and emotional values of colours. Today, we're used to saying that "blue is cold" for example; each time we do, we should perhaps credit Itten and his colour theory. "colour is life, for a world without colour seems dead. As a flame produces light, light produces colour. As intonation lends colour to the spoken word, colour lends spiritually realized sound to form," he wrote.

Itten was born in Switzlerland, and his first training was not as a painter but rather as a school teacher in Berne, where he learned about psychoanalytic theory. Like that of many artists, his path to becoming a painter was not a straight shot. He enrolled at Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Geneva, but became frustrated with his education there, and returned to Berne.

There, he developed an interest in religion and mysticism, and later returned to Geneva to study with Eugene Gilliard, a Swiss painter who was teaching about the geometric elements of art. Itten's early education in geometric elements can be seen throughout his later work, in his interest in the geometry of the colour wheel. It was when Itten joined up with other avant-garde artists of the early 1900s in Weimar, Germany, that his diverse interests were able to come together and allow him to create his colour theory.

Founded by the architect Henry van de Velde in 1906, the School of Applied Arts in Weimar later drew in Walter Gropius, and from then on the school was known as "Bauhaus." These were the halcyon days of art in Germany, with Kandinsky, Klee, and Itten among the eminent Expressionist painters teaching there. The Bauhaus marked a new moment in art history, cutting through the elaborate, ornate style of the previous era. The designs, in buildings, paintings and sculpture, were simple and functional.

It was under this influence that Itten expanded upon the colour wheel developed by Adolf Hozel. Itten took this colour wheel another leap forward, inventing a colour circle and seven contrasts, and looking at colour from every angle philosophic, religious, psychic, psychological and physical. Itten looked also at how colour affects a person psychology and spiritually; he believed that there were certain characteristics inherent in particular colours that would have a direct influence on how the viewer felt.

At the Bauhaus, Germany's unequalled artists' mecca in the early part of the Twentieth Century, Itten taught his students about colour harmony, which to him meant more than simply appreciating colours shown together with similar chromas, or different colours in the same shades.

"Harmony implies balance, symmetry of forces," he writes, and goes on to say that such a balance would be expressed when the colours used together would produce not another colour (such as when mixing yellow and blue to produce green) but when the colours mixed together produced gray. This was because "medium gray matches the required equilibrium condition of our sense of sight," he writes.

But Itten also discovered that colour harmony is quite individual, and that an individual will, if given free reign and a little knowledge, find his or her own "subjective colours." To prove his theory, Itten first taught his students about colour in general, and then asked his students to develop their own palette of subjective colours.

He found that there was great variety not only in the colours chosen, but also in the ranges of colours. "There are subjective combinations in which one hue dominates quantitatively, all tones having accents of red, or yellow, or blue, or green or violet, so that one is tempted to say that such-and-such person sees the world in a red, yellow or blue light. It is as if he saw everything through tinted spectacles, perhaps with thoughts and feelings correspondingly coloured."

This is an extract and you can read Sarah's full article at http://www.dezignare.com/newsletter/Johannes_Itten.html. Copyright 2002 Sheffield School of Interior Design, 211 East 43rd St. New York, NY 10017, Tel: (212) 661-7270 Fax: (212) 867-8122, Email: info@sheffield.edu