Johannes Itten and colour theory

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Johannes Itten and colour theory
Johannes Itten developed many aspects of colour theory. (Getty creative)

Artists and designers use colour theory to understand the effects of mixing colours. Although the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci contain writings on colour theory, most colour theorists point to Isaac Newton as the developer of colour theory. Swiss artist Johannes Itten expanded upon the work of Newton and others to develop his theory of colour. Itten's theory takes into account not only a color's contrasting properties but also its emotional ones. His work was first developed at the Bauhaus. Artists and designers continue to refer to and use his work to this day.


The first colour wheel was invented by Newton, according to His early colour wheels included bars of red, orange, yellow, green, cyan and blue. Newton joined them together so that the continuum of colour could be seen.

A century later, Goethe expanded on Newton's theory by studying the psychological effects of colours. In addition to determining that colours could be warm or cool, he also associated certain colours with certain feelings.

Itten, who taught at the famed Bauhaus in Weimar, Germany, developed the concept of colour chords. He also modified the colour wheel.


Itten developed "methodologies for coordinating colours utilising the hue's contrasting properties," according to Janet Lynn Ford on Sarah Van Arsdale with the Sheffield School of Interior Design further clarifies Ittan's work in an article on at by explaining that Itten's colour wheel also looked at color's subjective feeling. Itten outlined his theories in his book, "The Art of Colour", which became a textbook for a course that he taught at the Bauhaus.

However, Itten departed from Goethe's work, which looked at how colour affected people in a general sense. Itten theorised that people reacted to colour quite individually. To teach his Bauhaus students what this meant, according to Van Arsdale, Itten first taught his pupils about colour in general and then asked them to develop their own palette of subjective colours.

Time frame

The Bauhaus operated from 1919 to 1933. However, Itten's career at the school ended in 1923, about 10 years before it closed. Itten opposed the Bauhaus' production of commercial work and after a long-standing conflict with Bauhaus founder, Walter Gropius, he resigned from the school, according to Germany Today.


Itten's work has proven to be so pivotal that designers and artists still use his concepts in their work to this day. According to Van Arsdale, human beings during every era have attempted to order the world according to their view of it. Itten's theory of colour was one man's attempt to order and define the world and how people saw it.

Expert insight

"Colour is life, for a world without colour seems dead. As a flame produces light, light produces colour. As intonation lends colour to the spoken word, colour lends spiritually realised sound to form." -- Johannes Itten

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