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Bauhaus Color Theory

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever thought about color? How one color relates to another and how some seem to go together while others clash? Teachers at the Bauhaus did. In this lesson, we'll explore the color theory of the Bauhaus.

What was the Bauhaus?

Look at the colorful wrapper on a candy bar or bright spring colors in a greeting card. How do artists and designers know what color to use? They have to learn all about color and how it works. It might sound simple, red is red and yellow is yellow. But there is so much more to understanding color: how they mix, contrast with each other, and are seen in different kinds of light. It is so complex that people study, teach, and theorize about color. Now red and yellow aren't sounding so simple, right?

In the early twentieth century, abstract artists (people who painted pictures that didn't resemble anything in the real world) became increasingly interested in color. In fact, it was one of the central subjects taught at the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was an important art school that opened in Germany in 1919. It advocated respect for all arts and sought to merge art and design, arguing that one was not more important than the other. Some prominent artists of the time taught at the Bauhaus and it was influential to generations of artists. Its ideas persisted even after it closed in 1933 (due to the Nazis rise to power).

At the Bauhaus, four prominent artists taught color theory, or different methods and ideas related to how colors interact and different ways to mix them. But before we discuss them, let's review some very basic color terms that will help you understand color theory.

Hues are the twelve brightest and purest colors. These are usually pictured on the color wheel. Tints are created when hues are lightened with white. Shades are created when hues are darkened with black or grey. Tints and shades created a huge array of colors in various forms.

Color Theory of Johannes Itten

At the Bauhaus, the important introductory course in color was taught by Johannes Itten (1888 - 1967), a Swiss-born abstract painter whose own works were filled with swirling, vibrating colored shapes. Itten taught using a color sphere of the 12 hues, and he developed ideas about seven different methods of color contrast.

Johannes Itten color sphere
Itten color sphere

First was contrast of hue, the mixing of different hues from the color wheel. The farther apart the hues, the greater the contrast. For example, bright yellow and purple contrast more than yellow and green or yellow and orange. Second was light and dark contrast, when tints or shades are placed next to an extreme opposite. In the most basic sense, think of white as opposed to black. Light and dark contrast could be used in monochromatic compositions (images done with tints and shades within one hue).

Itten also taught of color as a cold - warm contrast, relating colors to different temperatures. This is probably one of his most lasting contributions to color theory. Cool colors include blues and greens, while warm colors include red, orange and yellow. The idea stuck, and you will still hear this terminology used today -- even with clothing designers and makeup artists.

His last four methods of color contrast were contrast of saturation, or the variances in tone of colors with different levels of tint or shade; contrast of extension, which has to do with assigning different weights to colors; contrast of compliments or complimentary colors (those opposite each other on the color wheel), and simultaneous contrast, or contrasts of colors so close in tone that they seem to vibrate. Itten's book, The Art of Color, which explains these methods, remains in print and influential to this day.

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