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History Lesson: Color Theory Engineers

Recently I created a video course in Color Theory and Watercolor Techniques (available here, for those who are interested!) One of my favorite classes as an undergraduate was Color Theory. It demystified all of the rules of color that then enabled me to confidently mix paint and understand why light reacted on certain objects to create colored shadows, reflected highlights and all sorts of geeky stuff. So I'm here to share a little of that knowledge particularly about the scientists and artists who pioneered the study of color, and enabled its wide application into the world of art.


First we have Sir Isaac Newton, who although mainly famous for discovering the principle of gravity (thank you apple tree!) he was also the first to separate light into color using a prism, AND created the first Color WHEEL! As a physicist he was mainly concerned with the way light was formed from particles and waves resulting in a particular type of electromagnetic energy. He challenged the accepted view of light His prism proved that clear white light could be separated into 7 visible colors in the "spectrum"-- which we all learned in kindergarten- red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

There are 2 governing principles of color- one additive, using prismatic wavelengths of light in which all colors combine to create white, and one- subtractive, using pigment, or the physical, corporeal absorption of light on a surface in which all colors combine to create black. Even though there are these two, the nature of all color is that it is generated by light, one way or another. The second, subtractive principle is where the artists come in.


"Color are light's suffering and joy"

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Nearly 200 years after Isaac Newton, Goethe, the German poet, philosopher and theorist challenged Newton's view of color as purely scientific into one that was also subjective and emotional.

Then at the turn of the 20th Century, the American artist and grand-daughter of Col. Benjamin Tallmadge (from the Revolutionary War!) published a treatise on color called "Color Problems" which outlined an enormous amount of study from the way painted color reacts with others, to the way that the human eye perceives color (and how color blind people might mis-interpret those). She was not recognized though for her contribution, and instead artists like Johannes Itten and Josef Albers gained a great deal of acclaim for their writings and teaching on color nearly 40 years later. These two in particular helped start the Bauhaus School in Berlin Germany right before WWII.


Before the Bauhaus, color theory was not taught in art school. It seems inconceivable now that such an essential part of creativity was not a foundational skill. But, as Delacroix put it "Draftsman can be made, but colorists are born." The prevailing theory was that color was a subjective area that was not governed by science, so was not a learnable skill! Johannes Itten, in his book "The Elements of Color" did his best to debunk this idea and instead taught classes in the principles of color and their application particularly as it pertained to painting. Observable qualities such as "simultaneous color contrast", "chromatic neutral mixing" and "successive contrast" were practiced at the school in formal classes and applied to paintings such as Albers' "Homage to the Square".

Thank goodness for our pioneers of color theory and all they have done to ensure that color not only remains an essential part of art education, but also the study of physics, symbolism and the cultural context of our way of interacting with the world. And I'll leave you with an observation by Johannes Itten on how our eyes interact with color:

"Instead of saying 'the bowl is red' what we are really saying is that the molecular constitution of its surface is such as to absorb all light rays but those of red. The bowl does not have color in itself, light generates the color" - Johannes Itten


If you want to take the Color Theory video course, check it out here


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