Understanding colour theory

Pigments were invented about 40,000 years ago. In their time, Egyptians were already using a palette of 6 colors : white, black, blue, red, yellow and green. In the Medieval Age, blue was highly prized because of its cost. Now, there is a whole area of study around color psychology. Naturally, with the course of time and from art movement to the next, colors and their uses have drastically evolved. In the same way of lines, space, form and texture, color is a visual element that constitutes a work of art. That is why artists and thinkers have always examined its meaning and value so much… Here are some keys to understand the color theory (or theories) that is the result of these reflections.

Because it was long a widely held belief that every color perceived could be recreated with the primary colors, meaning red, blue and yellow, color theory was initially based on this notorious trio. The German poet Jonathan Wolfgang Goethe was the first to conceptualize around color even though we owe the color wheel to Isaac Newton with its primary colors and 3 or 4 secondary colors according to the version. To Goethe, these colors were composed of both light and shadow such as “yellow is light dampened by darkness; blue is darkness weakened by light”. Contrary to Newton, Goethe established a color theory, admittedly more psychological than physiological, that found its roots in the human experience of color (and not in the actual composition of light).

Goethe's color wheel

With Theory of Colors (1810), Goethe inspired his fellow painters that, up until then, had come up with rules concerning every standard visual element except for color. The artist Vassily Kandinsky, who would go on to also deliver a crucial analysis of color, refers to this book as “one of the most important works”. However, long before him, it was the Impressionists that gave us a few lessons on the essence of color and how to capture it.

In fact, Impressionist revolutionized the uses and perception of color in namely contradicting the idea that the effect of shadow could be reached simply by darkening the color of said object. In painting the same landscapes at different times of the day, they put to test their theory that the best representation of shadow is not made up of darker colors but rather complementary ones in regards to the illustrated object. This art movement thus put into a place a totally new way of  representing color and light. By focusing on these 2 elements to the detriment of composition, Claude Minet, Edgar Degas and their peers pushed back the limits of the possible, daring to use brighter colors and unthought of combinations.

Claude Monet - Rouen Cathedral, 1894

In their deep conviction in art’s power to express emotions, the Expressionists and particularly the Blue Rider group with Kandinsky at its head, explored the effects of color on man. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), Kandinsky affirmed that the real mission of art is of spiritual nature and thus built a sort of reading grid for colors. He associated emotions and sounds to 10 colors amongst which he considers blue and yellow to be opposites, like black and white. In this way, “deep blue attracts man towards infinity, awakening in him a desire for purity and a quench for the supernatural”. In his search of abstraction, Kandinsky created paintings that do look like melodies, and inspire body, mind and soul.

A few decades later, the color blue would have another admirer : Yves Klein. The history of art would thus make the acquaintance of a new color : International Yves Klein Blue. The French artists painted over 200 monochrome blue works and distinguished himself as the poster child of this new art movement that consisted in reducing painting or sculpture to its simplest form. According to Klein, this would allow for the invisible reality to appear to us, such as from the emptiness of the monochrome would arise all of imagination’s power. Note that Kasimir Malevitch‘s White on White (1918) was the predecessor of this movement in which only purely physical elements of the work are subjected to our review.

Yves Klein on the set of the fhilm "The Heartbeat of France" in photograph Charles Wilp's workshop, Düsseldorf, February 1961 © Photo Charles Wilp / BPK, Berlin

Today, color remains in part a mystery to artists… that continue to ask themselves questions about its value and role in art. The human eye being capable of perceiving up to 10 million different colors, one thing is sure : the issue of color is far from being resolved !