Itten’s Colour Theory

Some notes on Itten’s Colour Theory..

Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967) was a Swiss expressionist painter, teacher, designer and theorist,  associated with the Bauhaus school. He worked extensively in exploring the use and composition of colour.

A synopsis of his book ‘The Art of Colour’, published in 1961, is below:


Itten developed a number of theories regarding the use of colour and how colours are perceived, including:

Colour Effect

How a colour is perceived depends on how it interacts with the colours around it. colours effectively influence each other.

Subjective Timbre

How a colour is perceived depends to some extent on how the viewer interprets it..

7 Types of Colour Contrast

Contrast of Hue: The contrast between colours where hues are clearly differentiated from each other. This is most prominent between the primary colours. As colours start to be mixed, their hues move closer to each other and this contrast is diminished.

Contrast of Light and Dark: The constrast between how light and dark colours are. Black and white have the greatest contrast here.

Contrast of Warm and Cold: The contrast between warmer reds, oranges and yellows and cooler blues, purples  and greens. How warm or cool a colour appears also depends on how it is affected by the colours around it. (A violet next to blue may seem warm but next to red may seem cooler).

Complementary Contrast: Contrast between colours which are opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Simultaneous Contrast: The effect that a colour can have on its neighbours whereby the eye perceives the neighbouring colour to have a hint of the complimentary colour of the initial colour. This effect can make a black placed next to a red look slightly green.

Contrast of Saturation: contract between pure, intense colours and ‘diluted’ colours created by adding white, black, grey or a complimentary colour.

Contrast of Extension: The extent to which a colour a used. much of it is present. Balance is achieved when the brilliance of a colour is matched with the extent to which it is used. For example, yellow has more brilliance than purple. Using less yellow and more purple will create balance.

Colour Harmony

Colour harmony refers to creating colour themes by using colours that are related to each other on the colour wheel.:

Dyads: Two colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel.

Triads: Three colours selected from equidistant points on the colour wheel.

Tetrads: Two pairs of complimentary colours on the colour wheel whose connecting diameters are perpendicular to each other.

Spatial Effects of Colours

Certain colours placed together give the impression of some colours advancing and some retreating, The background on which colours are viewed also contributed to this effect. For eaxample light tones on a dark background advance forward. Warm colours often advance next to cool colours which sem to retreat.

Colour Expression Theory

The mental and emotional effect that a colour may have when paired with other colours, e.g. yellow and orange denotes warmth and the sun, yellow and red is a very vibrant and loud combination, yellow and white is more subdued.





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