Colorful design in relation to the color theory of Johannes Itten

Colorful design in relation to the color theory of Johannes Itten

Theory of Itten

Teacher of the Bauhaus

At the Academy for Visual Arts in Holland, as a student, I learned the color theory of Johannes Itten and I became a huge fan of Bauhaus. Lots of famous artists have been teachers at the Bauhaus, like Piet Mondriaan and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. And Johannes Itten who developed a theory with a color wheel. With this wheel we learned to mix pigments and oxides to use in paintings and on statues.

It wasn’t until I started as a teacher myself that I realized it was only one way of mixing colors – the subtractive way. The technically schooled boys in my class had learned about television screens that use the additive way of color mixing.
The result was confusion on their part, but also on mine, because I couldn’t understand why they kept mixing up the primary and secondary colors.

Well, we have a saying over here: want to learn something well and quick, go teach the subject.
It’s true. And by the way, blogging about that subject has the same result! 😉


In science and art

In the 19th and 20th century several people have developed a color theory, even Goethe, the German writer. Most theories are based on the subtractive method. Logical, there were no televisions and monitors in those days.

Subtractive means that the more colors you mix, the more sunlight is absorbed (subtracted) and the darker the color becomes.

colorwheel itten

From Johannes Itten’s color circle, the following can be read:

  • the primary colors red, yellow and blue in the triangle in the middle;
  • the secondary colors orange, green and purple, these colors are a mixture of each primary pair
    – red+yellow = orange
    – yellow+blue = green
    – blue+red = purple;
  • the tertiary colors, that are a mixture of a primary and a secondary color;
  • complementary colors, those colors mixed together will make an almost black shade. They reinforce each other the most. On the color wheel they are opposite each other
    – yellow–purple
    – blue–orange
    – red–green;
  • the light and dark colors, with the strongest contrast between yellow as lightest and purple as darkest color.

Ink and paint

The hues differ

Oil paint, gouache, printing ink and toner cartridges are all based on the subtractive methods of color mixing. But the shades will differ slightly because they all use a different medium: linseed oil, gum arabic, egg.

The medium of ink is artificial. That’s why printers do not have blue and red as the primary colors, but cyan and magenta. Even the yellow has a slightly different tone in oil paint or ink.

Almost every color can be made of mixing percentages of cyan, magenta and yellow. Mixed in even quantities those three colors will make a brownish black. For a beautiful deep black a fourth cartridge is needed – black. It’s called the keycolor, hence the abbreviation CMYK: cyan, magenta, yellow, key.

color mixing


Computer and television screens

Mixing colored light is called the additive method. The primary colors are Red, Green and Blue (RGB). This is the color system used in television and computer screens. Mixing all colors – adding them – in even quantities will make white. (By the way, that’s another reason to call Black in the CMYK-system Key, otherwise there would be confusion with the B of Blue in the RGB-system.)

As you can see in the picture above the primary colors of CMYK are more or less similar to the secondary colors of RGB and vice versa.

Knowledge about these two systems can help you when editing pictures in for example Adobe Photoshop. I’ll show you in How to improve the color quality of your printed pictures.

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