The Theory of Colour in Science and Art
The subjects under discussion in this essay will be the following:
- an overview of Colour Theory and its leading exponents in the scientific field, related to the effects of their findings upon two artists, whose oeuvre spans the period 1890-1940;
- to discuss the theories and oeuvre of George Seurat related specifically to colour and form. George Seurat's work has become important in the study of any research into related colour theory. His theories and the way he developed his ideas will be discussed in relation to several of his paintings;
- to discuss the theories of Wassily Kandinsky including his time at the Bauhaus and relating to his relationships between colour, sound and form.
The History of Colour Theory
According to basic colour theory, "Colour choices are subjective. Artists choose colours based on design, aesthetic or emotional responses." It is commonplace to make references to colour when referring to human behaviour, for example, 'telling white lies', and 'caught red handed', as these word associations immediately conjure up a picture in the mind. Humans live in a world where they are bombarded with colours. Nature itself is generally gentle on the eye unless it is giving out a variety of warnings to the relevant species. It has been left to artists and designers to capture our attention, by using colour in a variety of ways. This has resulted in changes in fashion throughout history, often depending on the current scientific research of the relevant period.
Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) carried out a great deal of research into colour theory. According to Birren, "In the development of method and order in colour, Newton stands as the first man ever to conceive an organised colour circle." [Birren,p.24] This was however, related to the properties of light and not pigment. Goethe in direct opposition to Newton tried to revive the theories of Aristotle, that colours were manifestations of light and dark. He correctly referred to physiological colours being linked to certain material mediums, and he said of himself, "I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours, of that, I say, I am not a little proud." [Birren, p.25]
Goethe wanted to be an artist, holding strong opinions relating to the aesthetics and emotions relative to colour. His beliefs included the following:
- All colour comes from light and dark.
- Yellow and blue were the 2 basic primaries.
- Some colours were the result of additions, for example, red and yellow making orange.
He was poetic in his descriptions of what the 20th century now confirm as primaries, stating that, "Yellow in its highest purity always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay softly exciting character ... Hence in painting it belongs to the illuminated and emphatic side." [Birren, p.80] Of Carmine red he wrote, "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." [Birren, p.80] Of blue, "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, as it were a stimulating negation. Its appearance then is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose." [Birren, p.80]
Colour theory is progressive, and there have been many artists and scientists involved in its often turbulent history. These include:
Moses Harris, who published "The Natural System of Colours" in 1766, now very rare and dedicated to Sir Joshua Reynolds, and containing "the first recorded examples of a colour circle illustrated in full hue." [Birren p.26]
Figure 1. Moses Harris colour Circle
Ewald Hering, a German Psychologist, whose interest in colour led him to various experiments and conclusions; one of which being that the natural symbol of colour was the D in which all tones could be arranged.
Wilhelm Ostwald 1853-1932 took up this doctrine in his colour system based on two triangular cones arranging the pure colours on the points of the Triangles. His system is very well organised, but according to Birren would be "more appropriate to abstract commercial design than to the fine art of painting." [Birren, p.124]
Figure 2. Ostwald - Triangular Cones
The laws of colour harmony accepted today are mainly descended from the chemist M. E. Chevreul. He discovered through his experiments that the apparent dullness of dyes was not related to the quality of the dyestuffs but was directly linked to the "subjective effect of optical mixture; adjacent threads of complementary hues were mixing in the eye to neutral grey." [Gage, p.173] The laws he set out in his publication. "The Harmony of Contrast", 1839, have remained a constant part of art education. If students are learning about complementaries, triads and adjacents, they are applying Chevreul's principles. One law states that "In the case where the eye sees at the same time two continuous colours, they will appear as dissimilar as possible, both in their optical composition and in the height of their tone." [Gage, p.173]
In America, Ogden Rood (1831-1902) a physicist, amateur painter and graduate of Yale was one of the few colour Scientists who could not help but refer to the problems in painting alongside any technical and scientific data. He lived in Munich from 1854-1902, where much research into colour was done. His book "Modern Chromatics" was adopted by the Neo-Impressionists as one of their basic textbooks. His own painting remained traditional, and he was appalled by an exhibition of Impressionist paintings at Galleries Durand-Ruel. This included works by Monet and Pisarro. His son Roland who had studied in the Paris Art Schools, told him "what these painters said of his theories. This was too much for his composure. He threw up his hands in horror and indignation, and cried, 'If that is all I have done for art, I wish I had never written that book!'" [Birren, p.228]
The other American best known to American British and Japanese students today was Albert H Munsell (1859-1918). Again, like Rood and after studying in Europe, he patented his own colour sphere that has been adapted and still used as the standard in Britain today, alongside of Joseph Itten who worked at the Bauhaus and will be discussed later.
The artist Georges Seurat is particularly remembered for his in depth studies of the theory of "optical fusion", Pointillism or Illusionism. the theory behind this optical mixture was set out as early as the 2nd century, by Ptolemy who had identified two ways of achieving optical fusion; one by distance where "the angle of vision formed by rays of light from the very small patches of colour was too small for them to be identified separately by the eye, hence many points of different colours seemed together to be the same colour". [Gage, p.42] The other related to after images and moving objects. These experiments were widely repeated by others in the 19th Century and their findings quoted by the Neo-Impressionists.
Following Chevreul, other publications included, Helmholtz in Germany with "Handbook of the Physiological Optics" in 1867, and in 1869 Auguste Laugell's "L'optique et les arts". Helmholtz proclaimed that "the newly discovered truths of optics were indeed being exemplified in painting" [Gage, p.175] In "La Lumiere", 1874, Armand Guillaume stated that "for the first time painters have understood and tried to produce these phenomena." [Gage, p.175]
The further use of these discoveries had to wait for new techniques, therefore when Seurat showed his first example of what he called "Chromoluminarisme" or "Peinture Optique" at the last Impressionist exhibition in 1886, the theoretical groundwork had been well established. This was the painting "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Although the painting was in existence by 1884, he had spent the winter of 1885-86 re-working much of the surface with a texture of nearly uniform dots and strokes. Meyer Schapiro described it as "the first self-consciously homogenous painting, as it is also the first that makes an optical theory the justification for a technique." [Gage, p.175]
It was Ogden Rood's work that had the most relevance to the Neo-Impressionists, particularly his statement of the Pointillist technique. "We refer to the custom of placing a quantity of small dots of two colours very near each other, and allowing them to be blended by the eye at the proper distance." [Birren, p.226]
Seurat became friends with Charles Henry and Paul Signac; the former being a colour scientist and the latter a contemporary painter. Seurat 's masterpiece "Une Baignade" finished by the time Seurat was only 25, still had many dull tones, but his friendship with Signac led him to a brighter palette and the works of Chevreul, Rood and Sutter, another scientist involved in colour experimentation.
In his book entitled "Seurat ", Richard Thompson states that "Seurat 's harnessing of colour theory to the requirements of modern painting was of undoubted importance for other artists both during his lifetime, and well into the 20th Century ... He was convinced of the value of his innovations." [Thompson, p.7]
His friends have described both the person he was and his work extensively. Apart from being an extremely private man he was also taciturn unless talking about his method. Friends from the Cafe Marengo mention his deep commitment to his painting, his professionalism and expert observational skills. Angrand recalls the time during a walk that, "Seurat took great pleasure in proving to me that the green treetops against the grey sky were haloed in pink." [Thompson, p.12] Thompson records that Seurat was a hard man to get to know, evasive and "expected others to decode his cryptic announcements" [Thompson, p.12]
Whilst he was training he favoured artists who placed the emphasis on line, including Holbein, Poussin and Ingres with their balanced and disciplined compositions. His theory study originated with Charles Blanc's "Grammaire des arts de dessin" in 1867. This text became an integral part of the intellectual basis for his entire life. The book states that, "The artist is duty bound to remind us of the ideal, in other words to reveal to us the fundamental beauty of things, to discover their pure essence and to extract their qualities from their tangled and obscure form in nature." [Thompson, p.32]
His early years he spent developing a strong technique in tonality, mainly through drawing and etchings, refining his forms to strong but basic lines with heightened contrasts. He dated none of his early paintings, so they have to be judged by style alone. He made steady progress towards his search for an optical formula that had intrigued him in his student days, writing to Feneon in 1890 he mentions this search being centred on what he defined as "the purity of spectral element." [Thompson, p.32] Alongside of Blanc, he studied, Rood's "Modern Chromatics", Chevreul's laws of colour and the great colourists Delacroix's ideas. These texts were not the scientific tomes but were aimed at the general reader. From these and his own experiments he knew he had to keep his colours separate to achieve the highest luminosity and brightness. This then enhanced the chromatic effect of the painting. He also had to develop the brushstrokes that rendered the optimum optical mixture. He learnt from Blanc that small and separate dabs of pigment would result in a purer visual mixing in the eye. From Rood, the main understanding was that of the differences between colour and light and colour and pigment.
From the beginning Seurat concentrated on three issues:
- the application of the laws of colour,
- controlled handling of paint,
- disciplined composition.
By 1883 he had adopted the balaye or criss-cross stroke and had gained confidence in his colour application. In "Seated boy in a Meadow" 1883 (not Illustrated) he started to concentrate more on the figures in the landscape, and by 1884 had started his famous "Une Baignade" which was painted between 1884 and 1886. Seurat did many studies and drawings for the painting.
Figure 3. Georges Seurat 'Une Baignade', 1884-6
It is a composition of tranquillity with the eye drawn to horizontal plane; lines and forms. The horizontals are crossed with diagonals of the two river banks leading into space and emphasised by the city landscape and the reclining figures on the bank. In the sky Seurat has used straightforward blues and whites, with only a small amount of reflected colour in the water. The foliage has been enhanced with violet, orange and pink with greens; and the shadows with violet and blue. The figures are flesh tone with blue shadows and sharp contrasts that enhance volume. In the latter stages of the painting work he added more sophisticated applications; for instance the warm browns of the dog's coat reflect the greens and blue and violet shadows. He did later rework this canvas, having been influenced in his palette by his friend Signac. His earthy colours disappeared from this time and his palette brightened considerably.
Seurat only met Pisarro after he had painted both "Une Baignade" and "Le Grande Jatte". For the latter he executed 26 drawings and over 30 panels of the river landscape. In the study the strokes are much lighter and the forms much more natural and looser. Again the composition is diagonal, and there are strong contrasts of light and shade in yellow and violet. He modified the actual landscape to accommodate all his groups of figures as he needed a wide stage to show them in profile. He used intense local colour, bright and strongly lit, mid-light greens, pale blue and muted oranges. The strokes of the figures are interwoven with the strokes of complementary colour.
Figure 4. Georges Seurat 'La Grande Jatte (study)', 1884
In the finished painting, he has created an illusion of deep space. The paint was applied in tiny dabs, the white wall in the background being dabbed over a light background. Thompson refers to the river as "executed in one long horizontal mark using a loose system of Complementaries, therefore the water is predominantly pale pinks and dull yellows" [Thompson, p.112] The figures are flatly done and then overpainted, vertically or following the direction of limbs.
Figure 5. Georges Seurat 'La Grande Jatte', 1884-6
It has been reworked from the balaye strokes to minute dots on the faces and a few dots of red and blues have been added to the local greens; further reds and greens to the man's trousers; elements of orange to the woman's skirt. "Seurat thus revised La Grande Jatte so that it incorporated his recently developed ideas on colour and the touch to articulate them." [Thompson, p.113]
He had a problem with the incompatibility in his wish to create large areas of high contrast, but simultaneously increase luminosity, by optical mixing. To achieve this at all he had to decrease the size of the dots at the edges of the figures; which made them more fusible at the correct viewing distance. As he worked the canvas in a confined space, any accurate judgement of this would have been impossible.
Interest in the optical advances of this period quickly died out and as Seurat died at the young age of 32, it is not known how he would have developed it further or if he would, like his contemporaries, have found a new path to follow.
Birren says of Wassily Kandinsky, "All artists are indebted to him for inspiring interests and speculations that go far beyond mere naturalistic phenomena." [Birren, p.89] The idea that colour holds intrinsic beauty and meaning was championed by Kandinsky both in his painting and his writing. He spent his life as an artist searching for the elusive that joins the senses to the soul. He believed that colour has a direct influence upon the soul and described in musical terms.
"Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist, i.e. the hand that plays, touching one key after another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul." [Birren, p.89]
From that statement alone it is immediately obvious that Kandinsky had a totally different outlook on his life and work to Seurat. He was as dedicated as Seurat, but in a different way. Seurat was formally controlled, whereas Kandinsky worked towards total abstraction as a means of expression of his relationship to the world as he saw it.
Much of his work was directly linked to other art forms, especially music, working in close harmony with the composer, Schoenberg, who had also been experimenting with expressing himself in painting, as in "The Red Look" in 1910.
Figure 6. Arnold Schoenberg 'The Red Look', 1910
During the period 1911-1913 they corresponded and Kandinsky was looking forward to doing in paint what Schoenberg had achieved with his atonal music. Kandinsky went so far as to write in his "On the Spiritual in Art", 1912, "Schoenberg's music leads us into a new realm, where musical experiences are no longer acoustic, but purely spiritual. Here begins the music of the future" [Becks-Malorney, p.86]
Perhaps he did not realise himself the impact his own work would have on the history of art, as he developed his ideas and his Theosophical beliefs within his oeuvre. The painting, "Impression lll", 1911, done shortly after he had been to the first concert of Schoenberg's music in Munich, January 1911, serves as a good example of the reactions he felt, and how he went on to relate colour not only with sound but with form, which he later taught as Colour Theory at the Bauhaus alongside contemporary artist and close friend Paul Klee. This painting also resulted in the beginning of the correspondence between Kandinsky and Schoenberg.
Figure 7. Wassily Kandinsky 'Impression III', 1911
The dominating colours in the painting are yellow and black. The large black form relating to the grand piano that played a significant role in Schoenberg's concert. Kandinsky believed strongly that colours were powerful in expression and the sound of the colours was vital, and should be dissonant. In "On the Spiritual in Art" he described yellow and black as having certain properties:
"Yellow is disquieting to the spectator, pricking him, revealing the nature of the power expressed in this colour, which has an effect on our sensibilities at once impudent and importunate. This property of yellow affects us like the shrill sound of a trumpet played louder and louder, or the sound of a high pitched fanfare. Black has an inner sound of an eternal silence without future, without hope. Black is externally the most toneless colour, against which all other colours sound stronger and more precise." [27. Becks Malorney p87]
He started to make notes on his colour theory as can be seen in the illustration from 1913 which continued for many years, as he wrote in 1938 in his "The Value of a Concrete Work": "Absolute means do not exist in painting; its means are relative only." [Becks-Malorney, p.97] In the illustration, he is exploring the relationships between colours and contours, the interplay of colour and form and how juxtaposed colours affect each other.
Figure 8. Wassily Kandinsky 'Notes on colour theory', 1913
Many of his paintings are titled with the relevant colour as a part of it, for example, "Black Strokes", 1913, "In Grey", 1919, and "Red Oval", 1920. This continued even through the Bauhaus period with titles that include, "Yellow-Red-Blue", 1925, his most significant work from the Weimar Period and "Tension in Red", 1926.
Figure 9. Wassily Kandinsky 'Yellow-Red-Blue', 1925
Even one year before his death, "White Figure", 1943 shows this continuation of his passion for colour throughout his working life. Whilst his titles may remain similar, however there was a vast change in the style of his work, especially after he joined the Bauhaus in June 1922. The soft expressive areas as seen in "Impression lll" became rigid abstract forms, often circles, triangles with a variety of weight of line as seen in "In Blue".
Prior to moving to the Bauhaus he had returned to Russia where his paintings were reflecting his great passion for his homeland and its folklore. In the five years he painted in Moscow, his paintings concentrated on a mixture of the fairytale style mixed with "Splintered forms and animated dynamism ... fused with familiar church motifs ... to create a dramatic, explosive vision, a magnificent harmony of colours and forms of varying strengths." [Becks-Malorney, p.118 ] "In Grey" is from this period with a complex arrangement of abstract forms dancing over the canvas. The colours are noticeably muted compared to "Impression lll" and is a dramatically different in palette to "The Red Oval" of only a year later in 1920.
Figure 10. Wassily Kandinsky 'In Grey', 1919
It is here that he combines his Munich works and brings in new geometric forms. Here he has a diagonally placed quadrilateral asymmetric form over a strong background of vibrant and mixed greens. He has utilised different techniques in handling of the paint and the green background is freely expressive in contrast to the rigidity of the yellow form that appears to be firmly attached to it.
Superimposed on this are a variety of lines of different weights and tone, whilst near the centre and leaping out of the page is a freeform red oval, particularly vibrant with its setting inside its complementary green. The oval and quadrilateral forms are painted in a flat monochrome finish, contrasting with the background and standing out from the other softer and more muted forms.
Figure 11. Wassily Kandinsky 'The Red Oval', 1920
The six months prior to actually joining the Bauhaus he lived in Berlin exhausted and a virtual recluse; only taking part in a few exhibitions where he was criticised for the "coolness and lack of humanity of these latest works - a reference towards their greater geometrization and more rigorous construction." [Becks-Malorney, p.129] The critics commented on his lack of the dynamic and explosive colours, inherent in the Munich period.
When Kandinsky joined the Bauhaus, there was already a strong set of varying opinions relating to colour theory. The work of Ostwald played a key role in the colour study in central Germany and heated debates surrounded Ostwald and Adolf Hoelzel, a Stuttgart painter and teacher, who "stated that he had used some fifteen theories of colour in his teaching, including those of Chevreul, Helmholtz, Rood and Ostwald himself." [Birren, p.259]
Indeed the debate became so heated that Hoeltzel's followers petitioned the German Ministry to have Ostwald's system banned and succeeded in this in Prussia. In the Bauhaus itself, which was formed in 1919, amalgamating The Academy of Art and The School of Applied Arts, Henry Van de Velde a Belgian Neo-Impressionist painter utilised the laws of colour pertaining to the theories held by Chevreul, Rood, and Henry, and gave a young female assistant the job of teaching colour theory. Its founding director Walter Gropius appointed Joseph Itten to the Bauhaus in 1919, and Itten was a pupil of Hoelzel. It is Itten's colour theory that is being taught even today in the Art Schools of the UK. Itten's fundamental belief in harmony of contrasts descended directly from Hoelzel's theory of seven fold contrasts and the colour sphere of Runge. Itten and Paul Klee both opposed Ostwald's system. There exists some confusion as to who taught what and where within the Bauhaus. Klee was in charge of the glass workshop, but definitely taught colour theory in 1925, taking over from Schlemmer in 1922 as part of a basic course. Kandinsky, however was the master who most consistently taught colour theory. "Influenced by combinations of geometric forms in Russian Suprematism, Kandinsky made the investigation of colour form relationships an important part of his colour seminar at the Bauhaus." [Becks-Malorney, p.144] He believed and taught that certain shapes and properties could be associated with colours. To the primary colours he assigned basic forms (see table).
Pride, Avarice, Anger and Sensuality
High Spirituality, Devotion to Noble Ideals and Religious Feeling
Figure 12. Wassily Kandinsky 'Assigned forms of primary colours'
He developed a questionnaire, some of which related to basic colours and basic shapes which had then led to these conclusions, that yellow was sharp and angular as in his "Red Oval", blue was deep, and red was either warm or cool. Itten then went on to develop Kandinsky 's theories. There was however disagreement about the theories and even shapes of the specific colours. "Popova had allocated red to her circle and blue to her square. At a discussion, between masters and students, Klee remarked mischievously that at least the yellow egg-yolk was circular." [Gage, p.263] At no time during the Bauhaus except at its close was their a coherent view among its many teachers.
Kandinsky only came to Goethe's colour theory after he had written "On the Spiritual in Art". Goethe had had a revival around the time of World War I and Kandinsky came to it through his links with Theosophy and Rudolph Steiner.
In the field of music, both Schoenberg and Scriabin had composed works related strongly to colour and Scriabin's ideas were similar to Kandinsky's staged piece, "The Yellow Sound", which began and ended with blue. This was not performed until the 1960s, but had prior influence in Schoenberg's "Die Gluckliche Hand" which includes crescendos of lights changing hue. Kandinsky did however get to see one of his own compositions performed at Dessau in 1928 to a special version of Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition".
As the Bauhaus drew to its close, Kandinsky's work underwent further changes, influenced by Hannes Meyer, an architect. His focus changed towards technology and architectural forms, and smaller canvases, using lots of grids and intersections. He was studying planes and tensions within a canvas and he "increasingly renounced the suggestive power of luminous primary colours, and embraced instead a flatter palette of mixed colours, which anticipates the Chromatism of his Paris years." [Becks-Malorney, p.164]
"Sky Blue", 1940 is a typical painting of the last years of his life spent in Paris after leaving Germany in exile. These forms are much smaller floating on their cloudy blue background.
Figure 13. Wassily Kandinsky 'Sky Blue', 1940
He had to contend with a Paris dominated by Cubism and Surrealism, meeting Chagall, Mondrian, Brancusi and Ernst, but not forming close friendships like the one he shared with Klee. He found himself having to defend and prove the validity of abstract art in at least a dozen essays written at that time. Kandinsky continued to paint until July 1944, dying age 78 on December 13th of that year. His legacy to the history of art is as great as Schoenberg's was to music.
In conclusion, it must be realised by all who study art and or art history, that colour theory played and still plays an essential part in the overall understanding of the subject. It is a never ending study, in that all artists will look at works of those who have gone before them, and sometimes read their research as well. The world of art has been greatly enriched, by not only the artists, but by the vast number of chemists, psychologists and physicists, throughout history who have contributed so much to the field of colour theory. Only a brief glimpse into the vast history has been taken her and then concentrated on two of the most influential artists of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Both artists in their own ways have made a great contribution to history; Seurat with his optical mixing and Kandinsky with his Spiritual approach to colours, form and sound. They were chosen, because they are the artists most remembered for their specific researches and application of the techniques of colour theory at this point in history.
"Colour and Culture" John Gage
"The Art of Colour" Johannes Itten
"Theories of Modern Art" Chip
"History of Colour in Painting" Faber Birren
"Kandinsky" Ulricke Becks-Malorney
"Seurat" Richard Thompson
"The Shock of the New" Robert Hughes