Colour Theory


Colour theory has to do with both the science and biology of colour perception (by humans), and the psychology of it – what minds make of the information they receive. The originators, Goethe and Chevreul in the 19th century, seemingly coming to it from quite different perspectives, provided the working principles by which artists could actively choose colour combinations for their impact rather than relying on instinct. This is from Wikipedia which aggregates the bones of the subject:

…two founding documents in color theory: the Theory of Colours (1810) by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and The Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast (1839) by the French industrial chemist Michel Eugène ChevreulCharles Hayter published A New Practical Treatise on the Three Primitive Colours Assumed as a Perfect System of Rudimentary Information (London 1826), in which he described how all colours could be obtained from just three.”

Munsell‘s color system represented as a three-dimensional solid showing all three color making attributes: lightnesssaturation and hue.


For much of the 19th century artistic color theory either lagged behind scientific understanding or was augmented by science books written for the lay public, in particular Modern Chromatics (1879) by the American physicist Ogden Rood, and early color atlases developed by Albert Munsell (Munsell Book of Color, 1915, see Munsell color system) and Wilhelm Ostwald (Color Atlas, 1919). Major advances were made in the early 20th century by artists teaching or associated with the German Bauhaus, in particular Wassily KandinskyJohannes IttenFaber Birren and Josef Albers, whose writings mix speculation with an empirical or demonstration-based study of color design principles.


Color theory has described perceptual and psychological effects to this contrast. Warm colors are said to advance or appear more active in a painting, while cool colors tend to recede; used in interior design or fashion, warm colors are said to arouse or stimulate the viewer, while cool colors calm and relax.[citation needed] Most of these effects, to the extent they are real, can be attributed to the higher saturation and lighter value of warm pigments in contrast to cool pigments; brown is a dark, unsaturated warm color that few people think of as visually active or psychologically arousing.

Wikipedia 08/07/19



Bell, in his book What is Painting (2017), remarks on Goethe’s wish to move away from what he saw as Newton’s scientific approach towards the viewer’s own experience:

‘It is light, shadow, and colour that come together and permit our vision to distinguish one object from another. With these three elements – light shadow and colour – we construct the visible world and at the same time make painting possible.’ P127.

Later, Bell talks about looking at ‘the deep mind’ where mind is an organ of the body, contrasting Helmholtz’s physiological optics with Freud’s focus on the unconscious. The latter, in his view, being appropriated by the surrealists in the 1920s for their rationale of ‘constructing pictorial bridges to the unconscious’ in their work. (P139).

The colour wheel, an invention of Chevreul’s, maps out primary, secondary, and complementary colours to make plain the ones that sit quietly next to each other such as blue and green, and those like orange and purple that create explosive edges.

Gompertz, looking at the Impressionists, describes Seurrat as combining the precision of the old masters with this new way of looking at colour, and also dispensing with the impressionists’ imprecise brushstrokes in favour of tiny dots of colour drawn from opposite sides of the colour wheel to increase their vibrancy. (Pp 74-75). Gombrich, in The Story of Art, (2018) talks of Seurrat as ‘aiming at an illusion of space’  and describes his process of building his pictures as being scientific, ‘almost mathematical’ in its use of colour theory. (P544).

Elsewhere, Manet, Monet, Pissaro and Delacroix applied contrasting colours so that they were touching but not blending, a technique also employed by Cezanne with his patches of warm and cool colours designed to create ‘effervescence’- e.g. Still Life with Apples and Peaches. (P83)

Colour plate from Acton’s Learning to Look at paintings, 2009, Plate 5.

Some five hundred years earlier though, it seems da Vinci had stolen a march on the rest by using a white base layered with various washes to create luminosity (Gompertz, Pp 74-75) but perhaps not by reading how others had achieved it. Gombrich (P 294) says, “He was not interested in the bookish knowledge of the scholars. Like Shakespeare, he probably had ‘little Latin and less Greek’. He was a scientist though and instead of relying on authorities, he experimented”. I think I can identify with that although it’s also self-evident that experimentation in ignorance of a pre-existing body of evidence is quite a wasteful activity.

Similarly, Vermeer knew nothing of the theory but, in paintings such as Young Woman in Blue Reading a Letter (c 1660s) he employed the effects by juxtaposing blue and gold (Acton, Learning to Look at Paintings, 2009 P 7). And making her point about experiential impact (and possibly da Vinci’s too) she suggests P 119) staring for a few seconds at a block of colour (e.g. red) then looking away, at which point the complementary after image should appear – green in this instance.

There have been many versions of the colour wheel over the years – a quick google search reveals large numbers of them – and one of the most recent is Delaunay’s. Inspired by Chevreul, his wheel was constructed to add colour to cubism (Gompertz, P 153), seeming to subvert the original and also become a subject in itself (Delaunay’s colour wheel;

The related Colour Field theory places blocks of colour adjacent to or within each other so that, according to Rothko, they would ‘fight’ in a representation of relationships. Whether these are confined to the colour context or intended more broadly as a metaphor for social relationships generally or Rothko’s own specifically, the text in Art History for Dummies (2007, Pp 345-346) does not say.

Colour plate from Acton’s Learning to Look at Paintings, 2009. Plate 19.


Finally, there is this remarkable application of colour theory in war time: Norman Wilkinson, hired to camouflage battle ships and instead of using grey, employed bright and bizarre dazzle patterns to confuse enemy range finding sights.



Acton, M. (2009) Learning to Look at Paintings. Routledge. Second edition.

Bell, J. (2017) What is Painting? Thames and Hudson.

Bryant Wilder, J. (2007) Art History for Dummies. John Wiley and Sons.

Gombrich, E.H. (2018) The Story of Art. Phaidon. Sixteenth edition.

Gompertz, W. (2012) What are you looking at? 150 years of modern art in the blink of an eye. Penguin Books.

Related link.


Handy guide to terms.

Dan Scott, Draw Paint Academy really useful aggregation of terms and their meanings. The psychology of colour meanings may, however, be culturally limited.

Cross-cultural meanings of colour

This site describes in simple, maybe superficial, terms the cross-cultural similarities and differences in colour meaning.

This paper by Sivi Vainio describes a study comparing colour meaning among Chinese, Norwegian, Finnish, and Greek participants, and illustrating cultural differences.  Vainio, S. (2016) A cross-cultural comparison of colour-emotion associations of Finland, Norway, China and Greece. Master’s thesis, university of Helsinki.

This by van Wijk describes cultural differences in perception of brightness:

the brightness terms occur in the regions close to the equator. As we saw when we
considered the physical properties of light, it is in these regions that
the average intensity of light is greatest. The average intensity decreases
as one reaches the higher latitudes. Peoples living in the higher.latitudes
generally use a colour nomenclature, peoples living in the tropics
roughly speaking have brightness nomenclatures, as far as we can
judge from the available data.

Van Wijk, H.  A cross-cultural theory of colour and brightness nomenclature. (Met 4 tabellen).  In: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 115 (1959), no: 2, Leiden, 113-137.

Mubeen M. Aslam discusses cross cultural colour issues in the context of marketing and how, given some colours seem to translate well, others do not, it is important to get this right in any campaign. Aslam, M. (2005). Are you selling the right colour? A cross-cultural review of colour as a marketing cue. In I. Papasolomou (Eds.), Developments and Trends in Corporate and Marketing Communications: Plotting the Mindscape of the 21st Century: Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Corporate and Marketing Communications (pp. 1-14). Cyprus: InterCollege, Marketing Department, School of Business Administration.



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