Colour theories

Many attempts have been made to establish methodologies to evaluate the advantages of certain colour combinations. Very early on, colour wheels or colour spheres were engaged to visually communicate the associations and range of colours, and their relationships to each other. In his Optics of 1706, Isaac Newton split white light into seven colours-orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet, and red-arranged on a disk in proportionate slices such that the spinning of the disk would result in the colour white. Newton’s objectification of colour into a mathematically understandable system allowed for quantifiable experimentation.

13Colour history 01

 Isaac Newton’s prism experiment. Unknown artist 1874, coloured engraving.

The German poet Goethe along with the romantic painter Philipp Otto Runge further expanded colour theory (in, respectively, Theory of Colour of 1807 and Colour Sphere of 1810) to include research into the subjective effects of colours: the contrast of complementary colours, the visual illusion of afterimages, and the contrasting shadows seen in coloured light. They also associated colour with emotion-speaking of certain colours as warm and others as cool (colour temperature: see colour system) 15 colour history02

 J W Goethe Frontispiece to Die Farbenlehre (theory of colour) 1810

15 colour history01

Phillip Otto Runge, Farnen-Kugel (the colour sphere), 1777-1810

Newton’s Hue Circle In his attempt to develop a theory of colour, Newton was the first to understand that colours did not lay on a linear chart, but rather existed in a continuum. The hue circle is represented by white at the centre (0) and the hues arranged in order around the disk. Each hue is given a weight, or proportion , that balances it within the system. Newton closed his system through a mix between red and violet that did not appear in his natural primary spectrum. 13Colour history 02 Itten’s Colour Wheel Johannes Itten developed his colour wheel based on primary colours of red, yellow, and blue. From this simple starting point, two steps of mixing result in a 12-hue colour circle. Itten did not believe in further expanding the wheel to 24- or 100-hue wheels, as the dilution of the naming system he established made it difficult to easily identify colour distinctions. 13Colour history 03 Itten and Albers

In the early twentieth century, two supportive theories of colour emerged from the Basic Studies curriculum at the Weimar Bauhaus that continue to influence the way we comprehend colour today. The first emerged out of the teaching of Johannes Itten, who developed the 12-hue colour wheel. He identified seven rules of contrast that examined, in a scientific way, the subjective effects of colour combination, proportion, and harmony. Itten’s philosophical and mystical beliefs influenced his understanding of the use of colour and have led some to dismiss the importance of his discoveries. His Art of Colour, however, is still in publication. Josef Albers, who developed his Interaction of Colour after he had begun to teach at Yale University, expanded on the instructional exercises of Itten to further emphasize the notion that colour and the interaction of colours were a discipline to be learned.

The Munsell Model In the early 1900s, the American Albert Munsell developed a system of colour analysis based around hue, value, and chroma (see: colour system). These elements form a three-dimensional model: Starting with a circular relationship of hues, Munsell established a decimal notational system to describe the transitional relationship as one colour is identified from another.

Munsell’s Color Sphere

In Munsell’s system, hue is arranged around the perimeter of a sphere, value as it moves from the top pole (light) to the bottom (dark). and chroma as it moves toward the center. Munsell also developed nomenclature that made it easy to identify any color in his system. R 5/10 would be red, value 5, chroma 10. 15 colour history03Munsell also limited the nomenclature of his colour system, referring to orange as red-yellow to avoid confusion. His second term, value, describes the light or dark qualities of a colour, on a scale from 1 (dark) to 10 (light). His final term, chroma, identifies a colour as it moves inward from the hue band to the value pole. Other colour models refer to this as saturation. To account for the variation in strength of a colour (red is considered to be twice as strong in chroma as blue-green), Munsell developed what he called the colour tree. These systems serve as a starting point in understanding the complex relationships of balance, proportion, harmony, and effect that combinations of colours can produce. Each has its merits and applications for an interior design practice. Furthermore, their translation to a three-dimensional design space needs to be tested in-situ to observe the results. The following pages examine how one of these systems-that elaborated by Itten-functions as a model In order to develop a deeper understanding of colour basis and theory:

 A History of Colour by Tyler Tate (video)

Colour basis (post: What is this? How it is produced?)

Colour system (post)


Colour in the making, Black dot publishing, UK,2013

COLOR, SPACE, STYLE, © 2007 by Rockport Publishers, Inc.


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