Wassily Kandinsky's Color Theory

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Many artists have been able to take Isaac Newton's ideas on the color wheel and expand upon them. One of those artists was Wassily Kandinsky, whose color theory explored the harmonies of color combinations.

A Lawyer Turns to Art

Wassily Kandinsky was one of the first artists who was able to express how different colors affected emotions, a core principle of modern art.

Wassily, or Vasily, Kandinsky was born in 1866 in Moscow, Russia. His middle-class background gave him a lot of advantages, and when it was time to go off to college he chose the respectable profession of law. From 1886 to 1892, he studied law and economics at the University of Moscow. After finishing school, he returned to the university where he worked as a lecturer for the next four years.

Wassily Kandinsky
kandinsky

Kandinsky had enjoyed music and painting as a child. However, it was a performance of Richard Wagner's opera, Lohengrin, that would put him on an entirely different career path from law. He is said to have seen lines and colors while listening to the music. Some theorize that Kandinsky experienced synesthesia, meaning he was able to experience two senses at once, like colors producing music or seeing colors when he heard music. These experiences were reflected in his paintings, and he often titled his works after music terms. Looking at some of his paintings, viewers can almost hear a cacophony of sounds emanating from the canvases.

Composition 7
composition 7

Concerning the Spiritual in Art

After leaving the law, Kandinsky headed to Germany and attended art school in Munich from 1897 to 1899. He enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts, or the Kunstakademie, in 1900. He and other students launched their own school, the Phalanx, where he taught art for three years. During this time, Kandinsky began to write about color and abstract form. In 1911, Kandinsky published Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a short book that explored his feelings about color and its effect on human emotions.

For Kandinsky, art was a spiritual and emotional experience. He wanted his paintings to transcend recognized forms and express feelings through colors and shapes. To him, copying from nature stifled artistic expression.

Kandinsky argued that artistic experiences were all about feeling, and different colors affected mood. Yellow could disturb, while blue might make people feel good. Kandinsky's thoughts on color were similar to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's belief that different colors can convey certain emotions. The warm colors - red, yellow, and orange - are usually considered lively colors that can sometimes be harsh. The cool colors - green, blue, and purple - are considered more peaceful and subdued. Kandinsky was especially fond of blue. He also discussed the neutrals, black, gray, and white. White is silence and quiet, and black is completely devoid of possibility. Gray can go either way.

Concerning the Spiritual in Art
kandinsky book

Kandinsky's End

Concerning the Spiritual in Art garnered much attention for Kandinsky. One of his works was included in the famous 1913 New York Armory Show that introduced Americans to the European modern art movement. Modern art wasn't the only thing happening in Europe, however. Germany declared war on Russia on August 1, 1914, and Kandinsky, being Russian, had to return to his homeland. He lived and worked around Moscow until he was able to return to Germany in 1921.

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