Canada Dreams
Itten, J. (1970). The Elements of Colour: A Treatise on the Colour System of Johannes Itten based on his book The Art of Colour (E. Van Hagen, Trans.). New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
When I picked up this book in the Vermont College Library I had no idea of the adventure that lay ahead. The size of the book and the title word "Elements" fooled me into thinking that this was a simple topic. I have subsequently found that some of the major thinkers such as Goethe and Schopenhauer devoted much of their time to understanding the complexities of colour.
Early in the book the author briefly discusses various artists and periods and their use of colour. This was a great introduction for me not only as concerns colour, but also as an overall historical synopsis. He goes on to address the interests of the physicist, physiologist and psychologist with a sprinkling of anecdotes within the work.
The bases of the colour theories are that two or more complimentary colours when mixed yield gray. When one colour is viewed, and then the observer looks quickly at a gray or white surface, its complimentary colour will be revealed as an after image. Any other colour combinations that don't yield gray when mixed are expressive or discordant. The colour wheel is the method used to aid the artist in mixing his colours. Twelve colours are placed on the wheel so that the compliments are opposite each other.
The next important consideration is luminosity. The colour yellow is more luminous than blue; when blue, yellow, and red overpower the yellow's luminosity. This factor extends further. The darker a colour gets the more it disappears into the black but before that happens, orange, and red turn brown, green goes olive, etc. More striking to me were the productions of brown out of warm colours. Of course it follows that the lighter a colour becomes, the pinks and light blues and greens meet to become white.
When colour is in harmony there is a completeness and order to a work. If the artist chooses to imbalance this harmony then the painting becomes more expressive. We all have preferences of colour and have varying degrees of subjectiveness that affect the way we view and produce art. This choice of colour takes one into the psychological realm and into aesthetics, which are touched on briefly in the book. After this necessary overview the author takes us directly to the intricacies of the seven kinds of colour contrast:
1. Contrast of hue
2. Light-dark contrast
3. Cold-warm contrast
4. Complementary contrasts
5. Simultaneous contrast
6. Contrast of saturation
7. Contrast of extension
The strongest contrast of hue is in yellow, red, and blue and also with black and white. The dark-light contrast is the strongest in black and white, and yellow and violet. This leads to the cold-warm contrast which is strongest in red-orange versus blue-green. Complementary contrasts are, as noted above opposite to each other on the colour wheel and bring each other to maximum vividness. Simultaneous contrast deals with the affect colours have when juxtapositioned with gray or white to produce their complimentary afterimage. This effect can tinge an adjacent colour in a painting giving the work an undesired effect. Contrast of colour involves the diluting of colour by adding black and/or white and also by adding corresponding complimentary colours. Contrast of extension deals more with proportions and the quantitative relationship between colours. Yellow has more effect on a darker area than say blue on a light area. The portions are yellow 9; orange 8; red 6; violet 3; blue 4; and green 6. All these above factors need to be balanced to be harmonious.
He then goes on to discuss colour mixing, the colour sphere, colour cords, form and colour, spatial effects, theories of colour impression and expression, and finally composition. Colour mixing, the colour sphere, and colour cords are mechanical ways of viewing and utilizing colour. Form and colour attaches shapes to colours, while the spatial effects deal with depth, in contrast, of the colours. Impressionist is used here to state that the purpose is to study the impression nature has on its background. Expressionism studies the process and the reasons we choose our colours.
Each of these topics is complex and powerful, but I have to lay out the seven contrasts in total as I use them just to begin to get a grasp of their intricacies. It is no wonder he attaches so much importance to them. For me it is like viewing three dimensional chess. The adventure has started with nothing to check my interest.

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