Overview of Color Usage in Art History
1. Local color
Byzantine mosaics, decorative art of the medieval, stained
glass of the Middle Ages, folk art, Chinese/Japanese painting.
2. Perceptual color (Atmospheric color)
Started in Roman Art, developed in Renaissance, Rembrandt
(1606-1669), Turner (1775-1851) and others, intensively studied and fully understood
by the Impressionist (Monet, 1840-1926).
3. Optical color (scientific, divided color into points)
Pointillism - Seurats painting, printing technology.
4. Logical construction (substantial, return to continuous
Cezannes painting (1839-1906) - to modulate a
color meant varying it between cold and warm, light and dark, or dull and intense.
5. Arbitrary color
Expressive - play between warm and cool colors, over
and above those of the objects. Matisse, Bonnard and others.
6. Symbolic color
Create a sense of visual tension and emotional imbalance.
Van Gogh, Kandinsky and Surrealists.
Why Study Color
1. Intuition in strong moments.
2. Doctrines are for weaker moments. If one is unable to create
masterpieces in color out of ones unknowledge, then one ought to look
3. All great master colorists possessed a science of color.
4. Personal expression with color supported by adequate knowledge
Bases of Color Theory We Study in This
The Elements of Color, by Johannes Itten, 1961
(Johannes Itten, Switzerland, b. 1888, in 1913 studied under
German color theorist Adolph Holzel, 1919 joined the Bauhaus, colleagues of
Paul Klee & Kandisky.)
Color Physics (Newton, 1676)
1. A triangular prism disperses white sunlight into a spectrum
of colors (rainbow):
Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Dark blue and Violet
Each hue (color) can be accurately defined by specifying
its wave length of frequency. The light waves are not in themselves colored.
Color arises in the human eye and brain. Each spectral hue is the complement
of the mixture of all the other spectral hues.
2. Light generates the color: Colors are the children of light,
and light is their mother. An object does not have any color in itself.
A red object looks red because the molecule constituting its surface absorbs
all other colors of light, and reflects only red.
3. Color Temperature:
Standard Incandescent Halogen
Tungsten Fluorescent Daylight
Temperature 2700 Kelvin 3000K 3200K
Two Kinds of Color Process
1. Subtractive Color (reflected pigment): color resulting from
absorption of light. Their mixtures are governed by the rule of subtraction.
All color, when mixed in certain proportions, the subtractive result is black.
(pigmentary, objects, printed matter & CMYK color)
Primary color of pigment
Cyanine (Blue) +
Magenta = Violet
Magenta (Red) + Yellow = Orange
+ Cyanine = Green
Mixture of 3 primaries of reflected
pigment: Black (Brown)
Complementary + Complementary
2. Additive Color (projected light or reflected light): All
colored light, when mixed in certain proportions, the additive result is white.
Color resulting from projection of light. (TV screen, computer screen, web color
& RGB color)
Primary color of light
+ Green = Yellow
Blue = Cyanine
Blue + Red =
Mixture of 3 primaries of projected
Color Wheel of Pigment Color (artificially augmented spectrum,
Three Main Qualities of Color
1. Hue (color): The relative position located on the color
2. Value: Intensity of tone, lightness or darkness of the
3. Saturation (Chroma): Purity of the color
Variation of Contrast:
1. Hue Contrast
Undiluted colors in their most intense luminosity.
Extreme instance of contrast of hue: red/yellow/blue
(effect: tonic, vigorous, and decided).
The intensity of contrast of hue diminishes as the
hue moves away from primaries, secondary colors are weaker in character,
tertiary colors are still less distinct.
When the single colors are separated by black or white
lines, their individual characters emerge more sharply.
White weakens the luminosity of adjacent hues and darkens
them; black causes them to seem lighter.
Significance: The interplay of primeval luminous forces;
aboriginal cosmic splendor and concrete actuality.
Contrast of hue found in folk art, embroidery, costume,
and pottery testifies to primitive delight in colorful and decorative effects.
Matisse sometimes uses these colors.
2. Value Contrast (brilliance, brightness & darkness, intensity
Strongest expressions of light and dark are white/black,
Gray: mixture of black and white, or red/yellow/blue
and white, or any pair of complementary colors.
Tonal differences: Low key Intermediate High Key.
Significance: sharpen ones sensitivity to shading;
develop the feeling for proportion; be aware of the relationship between positive
& negative forms.
Monochromatic color is found in Chinese and Japanese
ink painting. Seurats drawings give the feeling that he is devoting thought
to each pinpoint in order to evoke the most delicate of shadings.
Equality of light or dark relates colors to each other.
Exercise: Matching Brilliances - the 12 equidistant
steps of gray from white to black in the first row have been repeated for the
12 hues of the color circle in brilliance equal to the corresponding grays.
Most saturated color in this scale: yellow 3, orange
5, red 6, blue 8, violet 9.
3. Cold & Warm Contrast
Sensation of temperature related to the visual realm
of color sensation.
The two poles of cold-warm contrast: Red-orange is
the warmest, and blue-green, or manganese oxide, is the coldest. The hues intermediate
between them in the color circle may be either cold or warm according to their
relationship with warmer or colder tones.
Cold: shadow transparent sedative rare airy far
Warm: sun opaque stimulant dense earthy near
4. Complementary Contrast
Projected light: Complementary + Complementary = white
Pigment color: Complementary + Complementary = Gray-black
a. Two such pigment colors make a strange pair.
They are opposite, but require each other. They incite each other to maximum
vividness when adjacent; and they annihilate each other, to gray-black, when
mixed - like fire and water.
b. All three primaries are always present:
yellow, violet = yellow, red + blue
blue, orange = blue, yellow + red
red, green = red, yellow + blue
c. The eye requires any given color to be balanced
by the complementary, and will spontaneously generate the later if it is not
d. Stabilizing power: Statically fixed image. Each
color stands unmodified.
e. Peculiarity: Saturated red and green have the
f. Graduated mixtures of a contrasting complementary
as intermediates and compensating tones unite the two into one family.
5. Simultaneous Contrast
Afterimage: Eye simultaneously requires the complementary
color, but as a sensation in the eye of the beholder, and is not objectively
present. It cant be photographed, just tinged for the eye.
Any two colors that are not precisely complementary
will tend to shift the other towards its own complement.
Significance: Aesthetic utility. (amplify, cancel,
suppress, or modify)
6. Chroma Contrast (Saturation, purity, intensity of color)
The prismatic hues are colors of maximum saturation.
Colors may be diluted into lower saturation in four
a. Color + White = Tint Color (lighter, colder)
b. Color + Black = Shade Color (heavy, colors
splendor is gone, deprives colors of their quality of light, deadens them)
c. Color + Gray = Tonal Color (Soft, dull and neutral)
d. Admixture of the corresponding complementary
7. Contrast of Extension (Area, size, proportion)
Goethes light values:
Yellow 9, Orange 8, Red 6, Violet 3, Blue 4, Green
The harmonious areas for colors (reciprocals of light
Yellow 3, Orange 4, Red 6, Violet 9, Blue 8, Green
Converting these values to harmonious areas:
Yellow: Violet = 1:3 Orange: Blue = 1:2 Red: Green
If other than harmonious proportions are used in a
color composition, thus allowing one color to dominate, the effect obtained
The Color Sphere (Philipp Otto Runge)
1. Symmetrical shape with six parallels and 12 meridians. Illustrates
all fundamental relationships among colors, and between chromatic colors and
black and white. All conceivable colors have a place.
2. Pantone color system for printing.
3. Colors we can construct by means of the color sphere:
The pure prismatic hues, located on the equator
of the spherical surface;
All mixture of the prismatic hues with white and
black are on the surface;
The mixture of complementary pair are in a horizontal
The mixture of any complementary pair, tinted
and shaded towards white and black, as represented in the corresponding vertical
1. Ittens theory:
Dyads: Two diametrically opposed complementary form
a harmonious dyad. Two tones should be symmetrical to the center.
Triads: Three hues form an equilateral triangle form
a harmonious triad.
Tetrads: Two pairs of complementary in the color circle
whose connecting diameters are perpendicular to each other, we obtain a square
or rectangle. Such colors form a harmonious tetrad.
2. Ostwalds color harmony:
Equal whites, equal blacks and the shadow series.
Two-hue & multicolor harmonies:
Complementary pairs in equal white and black
Transverse Complementary pairs
Non Complementary pairs
3. Munsells color harmony:
Vertical harmony Interior harmony Circular
Oblique harmony Oblique side harmony
4. Summary of color theorists approaches:
Equal whites and equal blacks color schemes.
Analogous color schemes: The variation of hue goes
no further than four successive steps of the 12-hue color circle, on the basis
of color temperature - warm or cool tones.
Complementary color schemes: Color organization bases
on a set of complementary color. One color is given the principal role, others
are used in small quantities merely as accents. Emphasizing one color enhances
expressive character, evokes a sense of contrast and tension.
Polychromatic colors united by neutral: Unity created
by repetition of certain colors, or employed neutral colors such as black, white,
gray, brown, gold and silver.
Spatial Effect of Color
1. On black background, yellow appears to advance, while violet,
just as any dark tone, lurks in the depth.
2. On white background, violet seems to advance, while yellow,
just as any light tone, is held back.
3. Among cold and warm tones of equal brilliance, the warm will
advance and the cold retreat. Distant objects seem colder because of the intervening
depth of air (Aerial perspective).
4. A pure color advances relative to a duller one of equal brilliance.
Color & Form
Red-square: A marked tension, symbolizes matter,
gravity and sharp limitation. The square corresponds to red - the colorof matter.
The weight and opacity of red agree with the static and grave shape of the square.
Yellow-triangle: Its acute angles produce an effect
of pugnacity and aggression. It is a symbol of thought, matching the weightless
character of the lucid yellow.
Blue-circle: The circle generates a feeling of relaxation
and smooth motion. It is the symbol of the spirit, moving undivided within itself.
Corresponds to transparent blue.
Theory of Color Impression
1. Color effects in nature:
Nature study should not be an imitative reproduction
of fortuitous impressions of nature, but rather an analytical, exploratory development
and interpretation of the characteristic of nature.
2. Majestic cycle of nature:
Spring: youthful, light, radiant, growth, luminous,
yellow, pink & light blue.
Summer: maximum luxuriance of form & color,
maturation, outward, fullness of power, saturated, dense, deep green.
Autumn: golden autumn, harvest, maturity, brown
Winter: passivity in nature, inward, cold, withdrawal,
gray & white.
3. Three different intensities of light:
Medium light: reveals the local color effectively,
most details and textures.
Full light: whitens the intrinsic color.
Shadow: obscures and darkens the color.
The following colors evoke certain meanings in this culture. These subconscious
perceptions, intuitive thought and positive knowledge should always function
together. They bear some general truth, but may vary in different societies.
They are related to the psychological realm, mental and emotional experience
of the viewer.
1. Red signifies primitive & fiery strength, inner warmth,
active, vivacity, passionate, dynamic force, mars, revolution. It can be widely
varied between cold and warm.
2. Orange express radiant activity, communication, active energy,
fire burning, solar luminosity, self-respect and generosity. It could be lightened
to beige for a quiet and intimate interior space.
3. Yellow is most luminous & bright color with the sense of
radiant, weightless & pure vibration. It symbolizes understanding, knowledge
and intelligence. It is most aggressive and luminous on black. Golden yellow
represents the highest sublimation of matter, but greenish yellow is a sickly
color to a lot of people.
4. Green symbolizes growth, hope, tranquility, sympathy & compassion.
It is the fusion & interpenetration of knowledge and faith. Yellow-greens
are joyful, young and sunny; while blue-green are cold, pensive and vigorous.
5. Blue express relaxation, passive, submissive faith, stability,
grief & associated with nervous system. It symbolizes inner spiritual life,
immortality and transcendental. Darker shades - infinity; lighter tints - dreamlike
6. Violet is a mysterious, meditative, emotional, piety color and
the color of dignity. Its tints symbolize the brighter aspects of life, whereas
shades represent the dark, negative forces and terrors.
7. Gray is a neutral and the color of inertia. It symbolizes indecision,
monotony and depression in dark tones.
Websites & Interactive Programs
Course syllabus: http://www.lampoleong.com
About CMYK colors: http://www.explorescience.com/activities/Activity_page.cfm?ActivityID=37
About RGB colors: http://www.explorescience.com/activities/Activity_page.cfm?ActivityID=36
Assorted Color Charts: http://home.flash.net/~drj2142/