Colour Theorist Notes – Johannes Itten.

Johannes Itten was a Swiss impressionist painter who lived and worked during the last century.  He was a central figure in the Bauhauss School of Art.  From 1919 – 1922 he developed a preliminary course that aimed to teach the basics of material characteristics, composition and colour. These teachings are still central to art study today and his book ‘The Art of Colour’ contains his development of the 12 segment colour wheel (Unknown:2010).

Johannes Itten’s book ‘The Art of Colour’ is available in a precise book format that I have been able to borrow, entitled ‘Itten, Elements of Colour’.

Itten’s teachings were extensive and the history is as interesting as the teachings themselves but the main points are:

The twelve-point colour wheel made up from primary, seconday and tertiary colours (Birren 1994:30).


The seven colour contrasts that are listed below.

Contrast of hue:

This is the simplest of contrasts. Demonstrated by the intense luminosity and it is easy to distinguish. Three colour combinations are required.

Yellow/ red / blue comination is the extreme and most intense example.
Seconday and tertiary colours are less distinct. The colours should be undiluted.

When the colours are separated by black or white the individual nature of the colours are more apparent.

Using one hue as the main colour and other contrasting hues as accents can bring interesting results.

Light-dark contrast:

Black and White are the extremes of contrast with infinite shades between the two.

Neutral gray is ‘flat’ with no interest. However other colours introduced easily transform the effect to a complementary state, even on a minute scale. Gray has a reducing effect on neighbouring colours and proportions matter.

There are many issues to contend with in considering an oil painting but for photographers we often can’t be as precise about the finer elements of effect of finer light/ dark colour composition. One principal is that a painting might have up to 4 groupings of principal tones that must work well together. Using these tones effectively can increase or decrease the depth of an image (Birren 1996: 37 – 44 ).

Cold – warm contrast:

Experiments have shown that the colour a room is painted can influence the perceived temperature in a room (Birren,1994:45).

The right side of the colour circle can be considered ‘warm’ and the left side considered ‘cold’. But this can be misleading (Bitten,1994:45) because each hue has a cold and warm spectrum (Bitten,1994:46).

In landscapes cold can imply distance and warm/cold can imply closeness (Bitten,1994:46).

Monet worked outdoors and made observations of colour and the effects of the time of day and light temperature. He concluded that paying attention to cold/ warm hues was more important then light/ dark. His, Pisarro’s and Renoir’s paintings used these observations of warm/ cold in their paintings (Birren,1994:47).

Complementary contrast:

Complementary colours are to be found situated opposite each other on the colour wheel. When used in the ratios suggested, they make for a static image.

yellow/ violet
blue/ orange
red/ green

Characteristics differ between each pair. Yellow/ violet provide the strongest light dark contrast. Red – orange/ blue – green complementary pair give the strongest warm/ cold contrast. Red and green are of equal brilliance (Birren,1994:49).

Simultaneous contrast:

This basically means that for any colour viewed the eye naturally seeks out the complimentary colour and can create it in surrounding greys. So even if the actual complimentary isn’t physically present it is created by colour cones in the eye. (Birren,1994:52) Itten presents colour squares to demonstrate this and places a smaller grey square in each colour. The grey appears to take on the hue of the complementary colour. (Bitten,1994:53)

Contrast of Saturation:

Saturation is the purity of colour. Each colour mixed with white or black dilutes the purity and has a different effect on each colour (Birren,1994:58).

Contrast of Extension:

This involves Goethe colour values. This is a rule of thumb for proportions of colour of the same intensity.
Goethe gave these values to colour:

Yellow 9 (brightest)
Orange 8
Red 6
Violet 3
Blue 4
Green 6

The complementary ratios from this give orange and blue 2:1, violet and yellow 3:1, red and green 1:1 (Birren,1994:59).

Itten explains also that there is visual impression, emotional expression and symbolic construction. This can vary between cultures as colour can symbolize different emotions in different countries (Birren,1994:12).

Unknown.(2010).JohannesItten.Available: Last accessed 08/01/2014.

Birren, F (1994). Itten The Elements of Colour. 5th ed. London: Chapman and Hall. 1-95.


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