Understanding ColorChapter 7 Color Theory: A Brief History
Questions and ideas about color have a long history. This searchhas produced an enormous libraryof writing known as color theory .
The earliest knownwriters on color were the Greek philosophers whowere intrigued by the elusive nature of color.
In ancient philosophy, all meaning in the larger universe was related somehow to mathematical order.
This idea that beauty and harmony are the natural resultof mathematical order is a premise that is still very much in place today.
Pythagorus (c. 569–490 BC) is creditedwith originating theconcept of the“harmony of thespheres.”Raphael, 1509
This theorypostulated that theplanets areseparated from eachother by intervalsthat correspond tothe musical scale.
Aristotle (c. 384-322BC) was the mostinfluential of theearliest writers oncolor and addressedthe subject bothphilosophically andscientifically.
Aristotle thought that allcolors derive from blackand white, or darknessand light, and this ideawas accepted as factuntil the 18th century. Raphael, 1509
During the Renaissance,writers like Leonard da Vinci and others wrote abouteverything from the practicalities of mixing pigments to the philosophical and moralmeanings of colors.
But it was overalla rather obscure subject until the18th century and the studies ofIsaac Newton .
Newton was a product of the Enlightenment during the 18th century. This “Age of Reason” sought to give rational explanations fornatural phenomena to replace the old mystical beliefs.
However, thissearch forabsolutesdetermined byscience was asrigid anduncompromising inits way as thedemands ofabsolute faith thatpreceded it.
Only the source ofauthority hadchanged, from Godand his earthlyrepresentatives, theclergy, to reasonand its earthlyrepresentatives,men.
The intellectual worldof the 18th century was quite fluid. People didn’t think of themselves as writers, biologists, or mathematicians but as “natural philosophers,” and wrote about all sorts of scientific and philosophical topics.
Two themes dominated 18th, 19th, andearly 20th century color study: the search for a comprehensive color-order system, including an appropriate format for visualizing it. AND... the laws of color harmony
Two towering and and very different figures dominate the beginnings of color theory:
...Newton originated the concept of colors a a continuous experience. He diagramed the seven hues as a circle, linking spectral red and violet.
This first known illustration ofcolors as a closed circle made of arcs of individual color appeared in Opticks.
Newton’s contemporaries viewed Opticks as a work on the nature of color , not on the nature of light . The ideas in it generated tremendous controversy all over Europe.
At the same time, the naturalphilosophers were considering light, more pragmaticpeople were tryingto discover how to predictably produce colors by mixing paints or dyes.
Jacques ChristopheLe Blon (1667–1741)was a Frenchprintmaker whoidentified the primarynature of red, yellowand blue while mixingpigments for printing.
Le Blon’s treatise,Coloritto (c. 1730)offers the firstconcept of threesubtractiveprimary colors.
His work attracted a great deal of attention and acceptance because it addressed the practical aspects of using color.Jacques Christophe Le Blon, Van Dyck Self Portrait. Three-colormezzotint, 61.2 x 36.0 cm., c. 1720s. Yale Center for British Art,Paul Mellon Collection.
The CMYK colorspace used inprinting today isderived from hiswork.
Moses Harris(1731–1785) was anentomologist andengraver who wasfascinated by thecolor of the insectshe studied.
He published thefirst known colorcircle in 1766.
Harris believed thatred, yellow, andblue were the mostdifferent from eachother and should beplaced at thegreatest possibledistances apart onthe circle.
To accomplish this,he discardedNewton’s indigo andcreated anexpanded colorcircle based onequal intervals ofcolor and multiplesof three.
Color-order systems were the first concern of theoristsbecause a formal system establishes a structured field in which to search for laws of color harmony.
The primary focus of that search was on the relationshipbetween hues. Value and saturation took a back seat to hue.
Among all the major figures in color study, there wasagreement that balance between complementary colors was the first principle of color harmony.
The ancient idealof mathematicalbalance was somuch a part of thesearch for laws ofharmony that hueswere frequentlyassociated withnumbers orgeometric forms.
Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) theorized that equal light-reflectance in spectrum colors is inherently harmonious.
Schopenhauer’s Circle of Color Harmony is made up ofunequal arcs. Each complementary pair is meant to beequal in light-reflectance to each of the other two pairs.
Every color is assigned a number representing itslight-reflectance (or value) in relation to the others.
The total of all the numbers added together is 36, or 360 degrees, a full circle.
Schopenhauer’s theory can be deceptive;a large area of violet does not necessarily reflect the same amount of light as a smaller area of yellow.
But we do sense value differences between pure colors.
Schopenhauer’s theory can be illustrated as striped tee shirts. In order for each shirt to be harmonious, thecomplementary pairs must have different ratios: 1 to 1, 1 to 2, and 1 to 3.
In Itten’s quest for color harmony, he superimposed geometric forms(squares, rectangles, triangles, and hexagons) over the artists’ spectrum todemonstrate what he called “harmonious chords.”
Each color chord illustratescomplementary colors in some measurable proportion.
The geometric pointsare called the “notes”and no “chord” strays from the complementary relationship.
The person who madethe final break with thecolor-order traditionwas Josef Albers(1888–1976), acolleague of Itten’swho also taught at theBauhaus school.
Albers fled NaziGermany in the early 1930’s with his wife, the weaver Anni Albers.
They taught first at the Black MountainSchool in North Carolina and later at Yale.
Albersbecame themostinfluentialname in colortheory in theUnited States.
However, his1963 bookInteraction ofColors containednothing like theusual charts orsystems.
Albers taught thattrueunderstanding ofcolor comes froman intuitiveapproach to studioexercises.
He stressed the instability and relativity of perceived colors and the power of visual training.
At the same time, he taught that even within this unstablefield, there are effects that can be predicted and controlled.
In Interaction of Colors, Albers casually discounts the generations of theory that preceded him.
“Thisbook...reversesthis order andplaces practicebefore theory,which is, after all,the conclusion ofpractice,” he wrote.
Albers was not thefirst to recognizethat the visualexperience, morethan consciouschoice, determineshow we perceivecolors, but he wasthe first to assertthe primacy of thevisual experienceover structure orintellectualconsiderations.
For Albers, thevisual experience, not theory, was paramount.
The late 20th century saw the focus of color studymove from philosophical inquiry to a greater interest in psychological and motivational effects of colors.
There is an entire industry, for example, that is devotedto determining current and future consumer preferences in colors and color combinations.
At the same time, color theorists continue to search for absolutes.
There is an enduring assumption–or perhaps, a hope–that those elusive,timeless, and absolute lawsfor pleasing combinations of colors really do exist and simply await discovery.