Our Blog

What is Colour Theory?

16 July 2020

Our world contains a symphony of colours. Just look up at the sky — from the soft lilac that emerges as the world is waking up to the fiery orange that engulfs us at dusk. These diverse colours define our lives. Whether in nature, art, our food or our clothes, they surround us. 

Colour is a phenomenon that requires exploration through numerous lenses and to help us do just that, we are kick-starting a monthly series diving into the world of colour. In this instalment, we explore the way our understanding and use of colours have developed over centuries through the emergence of colour theory — where science meets art.


The journey to understanding colour started centuries ago in ancient Greece with Aristotle, a philosopher and scientist, and members of his Peripatetic school. In his fascinating text On Colours, he states that “darkness is not a colour at all, but is merely the absence of light”. He theorised that the two primary colours were white and black — light and the absence of light. 

By adopting a philosophical approach he was able to argue that all other colours aside from white and black were derived from one of the four elements: air, water, earth and fire. Aristotle, using observations of colours in nature, believed that “the earth is also naturally white, but seems coloured because it is dyed.”

For example, a plant above ground is green while its roots are white. Thus, the sun provides colour to the leaves. Additionally, a plant left to dry will lose its vividness. Therefore water provides colour too. Today this theory may sound bizarre, but Aristotle’s philosophy provided essential observations that were employed for the next 2000 years by artists and was the starting point for the development of the colour theory.

Sir Isaac Newton, Rainbows and Colour Wheels

Have you ever noticed a rainbow as streaks of sunlight pass through your window? Sir Isaac Newton did, and he paved the way for our understanding of the behaviour of light and colours through his discovery of this phenomenon. He noted in his text Opticks in 1704 that when light shines through a prism, it is a combination of all colours across the colour spectrum. Newton identified the colours as red, orange, yellow, blue, green, indigo and violet. Through his experiments and observations, he found that he could also recombine these colours back into white light. A radical discovery at the time, as pure light had been thought colourless.

Newton went on to create the first colour wheel, depicting the relationship between the spectrum of colours. He discovered that by blending the primary colour in the spectrum (red) with the last colour (violet), he could produce magenta. Magenta was a new colour, not previously part of the range. He then morphed the colour spectrum into a circle allowing him to perceive the colour mixture for two colours by pointing to the colour between them on the wheel.


Illustrations from Isaac Newton’s Opticks (1704). Left: Seven colours mapped to a musical octave starting at the tone D. Right: Diagram of the colour spectrum.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe on Colour and Emotion

Have you ever used colour to express the way you feel? Perhaps a soft yellow for happiness? Or a rich blue for melancholy? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, a German poet, artist and politician, was the first person to offer an insightful theory about the psychological effects of colour in his publication Theory of Colours in 1810. 

Opting for a more conceptual and poetic approach, Goethe explored the way colours impact our mood and emotions. Intertwining his poetic language within his theory, Goethe came up with a stream of emotive definitions:


“The effect of this colour is as peculiar as its nature. It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness. The first in its dark deep state, the latter in its light attenuated tint; and thus the dignity of age and the amiableness of youth may adorn itself with degrees of the same hue.”


“In its highest purity, it always carries with it the nature of brightness and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.” 


“This colour has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue, it is powerful, but it is on the negative side and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.”

Goethe’s Colour Wheel

Goethe went on to refine his colour wheel through symmetrical indications of what he believed was the natural order of the colours. He added corresponding descriptive words such as schön, meaning beautiful, within red, edel or noble in the orange and gut in the yellow meaning good.


Illustration from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810). Depiction of Goethe’s colour wheel in which the three primary colours red, blue and yellow alternate with the three secondary colours of orange, violet and green.

Goethe’s theory stemmed from opposition to Newton’s colour theory, refuting Newton’s ideas about the colour spectrum. Goethe believed that “colour itself is a degree of darkness” and that darkness was an active element when colour pigments were mixed rather than just an absence of light. 

The scientific community invalidated Goethe’s theory, but he inspired many to think about the psychological effects of colour. He also created a new standard for presenting scientific concepts in an aesthetically pleasing way through the geometric designs of his exploration of light and colour.


Illustrations from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colours (1810). Two geometric designs exploring light and colour.

Phillip Otto Runge’s revolutionary colour sphere

A pen pal to Goethe, Phillip Otto Runge was one of the best romantic painters of his time. He revolutionised the colour wheel by creating the first three-dimensional colour sphere in 1810, outlined in his manuscript Colour Sphere. His theory involved an attempt to construct a relationship between all mixtures of colours — from the primary colours red, yellow and blue combined, and with white and black. 

In an attempt to capture the harmony of colours, Runge arranged the three primary colours across the equator with the hues getting lighter towards a white pole at the top and darkening towards a black pole at the bottom.


Illustration from Phillip Otto Runge’s Colour Sphere (1809). Hand-illuminated engraving of the colour sphere.

Albert Munsell’s Colour System

In the early 1900s, American painter Albert Henry Munsell bridged art and science by coming up with one of the most significant colour systems used to this day. 

Munsell developed a colour tree, also known as the Munsell colour system, using a highly scientific approach. He developed an irregular shape broken down into three dimensions to express the affinity of colours.

He applied different dimensions to help organise and represent colours:

  • Hue (the type of colour such as yellow, blue, green, etc.) — arranged in a circle around the tree 
  • Value (brightness) — lighter at the top of the tree pole and darker at the bottom 
  • Chroma (saturation of colour) — expressed as branches coming out of the tree based on how much variation each colour had


Illustrations from Albert Henry Munsell’s Atlas of the Munsell Colour System (1915). Diagram showing hue, value and chroma in relation to one another.

Johannes Itten and the birth of the Bauhaus colour theory

Johannes Itten was an abstract painter, an unconventional teacher, and a significant colour theorist. Itten made a long-lasting contribution to the study of colours, inspiring a new perception of the way colours can impact our psyche. 

From 1919 until 1922, he taught fundamental courses on colour theory at the influential Bauhaus Institute in Germany. A founding member of the Bauhaus colour theory, Itten explored the subjective experience of colour in his book The Art of Colour. Like Goethe, Itten was interested in associating colours with specific emotions and highlighting the impact of colour on our moods. He believed colours to be, “forces, radiant energies that affect us positively or negatively, whether we are aware of it or not”.

He was one of the first people to identify strategies for successful colour combinations by highlighting seven fundamental categories of contrast within his work — contrast in hue, saturation, light and dark, warm and cool, complementary contrast, and simultaneous contrast (or proportion).


Illustration from Johannes Itten’s The Art of Colour (1973). Depiction of the strongest expression of contrast of hue.

Significantly, Itten was the first person to distinguish colour through temperature, creating warm and cool categories to allow a new perception of how these colours affect people psychologically. He determined revolutionary ways to juxtapose and use colour aesthetically within design and marketing, and to invoke specific emotions.

Josef Albers and the art of seeing colours 

Josef Albers was a student of Johannes Itten at the Bauhaus institute and revolutionised the art of seeing colours. His book Interaction of Colour, first published in 1963, documented his experiments with colour illusions and compositions and was filled with simple colour exercises. Albers demonstrated the distortions of our human perception of colour demonstrating how we perceive a colour based on the colour surrounding it and his work offers some of the most important and thought-provoking insights into colour theory to this day. 


Do you want to know more about the psychological effect of colour on our emotions? Do you want to see how artists featured at Mathaf have implemented Josef Albers’ theory to create some stunning pieces of art? Stay tuned to our blog as we dive into a monthly journey to explore the symphony of colours that surround us.

Add your comment

Find other articles on our blog

You might also like