Bauhaus Dessau.

Detail of the ceiling

Detail of the stairs

The Elements of Colour


The Spatial Effects of Colours and Forms

Klee/Kandinsky House

Stairwell and rooms in the Klee/Kandinsky House

Staircase in the Klee/Kandinsky House

The Klee appreciation room in the Masters

Nesting Tables by Josef Albers.

Hansaviertel Housing Berlin

Showcase 31 Mar 2015

The Theory of Colour

Colour expert Kate Smith delves deep into the theory of colour.

We think of colour as transcendent—a language of sorts, independent of cultural differences, time period, or aesthetic movement. Colour is a powerful tool that permits designers to influence mood, compose spaces, and even make profound statements. We accept these as truths about colour, but don’t often take the time to examine the roots of these core beliefs— where these ideas came from and how they were promoted. 

If fact, it surprises many designers to discover that part of the foundation of our modern understanding of colour and its uses is rooted in a design movement dating back to the early 20th century. The Bauhaus movement and its institute were born in Germany in 1919. Though the German school only lasted until 1933, when the Nazi government forced it to close, the Bauhaus not only educated many influential artists in a variety of disciplines, but it also spawned programs in other countries, including the U.S. 

One of the most enduring influences of the Bauhaus, though, is the colour theory that was taught under four prominent artists. The contributions of Johannes Itten, Wassily  Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Josef Albers undergird much of what we currently understand and believe about colour, and an examination of the teachings of these four artists helps us understand not only the formation of modern colour theory, but indeed how colour theory developed and was transmitted.

Johannes Itten

Johannes Itten taught at the Bauhaus from 1919 until 1922, and he taught one of the fundamental preliminary courses that, among other things, grappled with colour theory. Itten gave us a colour sphere comprised of twelve colours (three primary, three secondary, and six tertiary) that shows the relationship among colours, as well as gradations of saturation. The influence of psychoanalysis is apparent in Itten’s colour theory, as he was one of the first to associate different colours with specific emotions and study the impact of colour on our moods. He also studied how individuals perceive colour. Itten taught that there were seven different methods of contrast: contrast of saturation, of light and dark, of extension, complementary contrast, simultaneous contrast, contrast of hue, and contrast between warm and cool colours. A particularly interesting practice of his in the classroom was to work students through an examination of colour, and in particular his theory about contrast, by first examining abstract works, reflecting the Bauhaus’ move away from exclusively representational works. After students studied the abstract pieces, they would move on to look at more realistic works, and finally would apply what they had learned of colour theory to their understanding of classical works. 

Itten’s most enduring contribution to modern day colour theory, though, is his characterisation of colours in terms of temperature, and his designation of certain colours as warm and others as cool persists to this day.

Wassily Kandinsky 

Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter best known for his bold, geometric, abstract works, taught at the Bauhaus from 1922 until it closed in 1933. He considered colour to be an utterly transcendent language— a way to examine the universal aesthetic. He adopted a synesthetic relationship with colour, associating particular colours with specific geometric shapes and with musical tones and chords. Yellow, for example, was best expressed as a triangle and by a middle C played on a brassy trumpet. Circles best expressed the colour blue, and the colour black in musical terms was the colour of closure. The examination of colour in terms of the fullness of its expression is certainly one of Kandinsky’s legacies.

Paul Klee

Paul Klee taught at the Bauhaus from 1921 until 1931. Like Kandinsky, Klee tended to think of colour in musical terms, making the connection between harmonious sounds and complementary colours, as well as dissonant sounds and colours that clash. Klee wanted his students to understand that colour wasn’t just a tool for the faithful reproduction of nature. Colour for Klee was a powerful device that enabled a painter to shape, compose, and influence paintings, rooms, and even the people who interact with artwork. In order to fully understand the power of colour, students had to see colour as freed from its naturalistic, descriptive role.

Josef Albers

Although the Bauhaus closed in 1933, its legacy was far from finished. Josef Albers, first a student at the school, studying under Johannes Itten, became a professor in 1925, and emigrated to the U.S. after the Bauhaus’ closure. He taught at several institutions in the U.S., most notably Black Mountain College and Yale. Albers dealt both with the very physical reality of colour and of paint, in particular, making detailed notes on the precise materials he used in his work, but he was also intrigued by the more abstract aspect of colour theory and concluded that colours were governed by an internal and deceptive logic.


As we see in other colour theories, the Bauhaus movement acknowledged the frustrating fact that even though colour is fundamental, powerful, and versatile, it is also difficult to discuss. Much in the way that language itself resists our efforts to understand it, the language of colour is similarly resistant. 

What the Bauhaus gave us, though, is an understanding of colour that pushes us to think beyond the representational. It forces us to confront the real emotional weight of our colour choices, and it urges us to try out our terminology that applies to shape and sound in our understanding of colour, giving us alternatives that open our minds to innovative and powerful ways to employ colour in our work and lives.

Interaction of Color | App for iPad

The work of artist and educator, Josef Albers (1888–1976), had far-reaching impact on design education of the twentieth century, particularly in Europe and the United States. Notable amongst his many contributions is the mammoth Interaction of Color, published in 1963—designed as a teaching aid with more than 150 printed silkscreen colour studies, a corresponding book of commentary, and a second book delving  into Albers’ colour theories. 

Interaction of Color continues to find relevance and utility across geographies and time, with its unique exploration of colour at the intersection of art, science, psychology, and practical application. The release of the Interaction of Color app for the iPad, by Yale University Press, provides greater access to, and increased functionality and interactivity to this iconic learning tool. 

The interactive experience provided by the app educates users on perception and use of colour, through both instructional and hands-on application features.

Features Include:

  • Complete text and plate commentary from the original print version, describing Albers’ principles on how to see and understand colour.
  • Over 125 animated colour studies from the original book to demonstrate the theories.
  • Over 60 interactive plates that replicate the experience of working with colour swatches and paper to understand colour interaction, inspired by Albers’ teaching methodologies.
  • Ability to create, save, and export final designs and palettes into vector-based design software for further use. 
  • Video commentary, including archival videos of Albers and interviews with experts to explain key principles. 
  • Interviews with leading designers and artists, talking about the use of colour in their professional practices.
Contributor: President and Chief Color Maven of Sensational Color, Kate Smith is an internationally renowned colour expert, sought out for her ability to guide businesses on how to use colour to gain recognition and generate revenue.



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