The Elements of Color – Johannes Itten

The Elements of Color by Johannes Itten

The Elements of Color by Johannes Itten

I found this book rather fascinating, even though some parts of it were rather difficult to get to grips with. It would be of utmost value to a student studying painting as the exercises Itten has in this book are all related to painting. However, after spending a little too much money on monitor calibration software and books this month I was not about to rush out to purchase paints and paintbrush to do these exercises knowing full well I would never use them again.

Itten begins his book with a brief and extremely interesting history of the use of colour in art going back all the way to the Chinese Han dynasty (ceramics) to the Roman and Byzantine mosaics to Leonardo da Vinci’s sepia tones to Rembrandt, who Itten ‘considered the exemplar of chiaroscuro painters’ (Itten, 1970, p.10) to the Cubists who used geometric shapes with mainly light-dark values and the Surrealists like Salvador Dali who used color to express their unrealistic images.

He then goes on to explain the physics of light and mentions the physical ways that colours can be produced. The most well know way is by refraction. We are all reminded of our school physics class when the teacher demonstrated light striking a prism and the separate colour bands appearing on the other side of the triangle. Other ways of generating colours are by interference, diffraction, polarization and fluorescence. A fantastic video (Light Fantastic: The Science of Colour) on the physics of colour was made by the University of Exeter and can be seen here explains some of these aspects.

Itten then discusses colour harmony which is the evaluation of ‘the joint effect of two or more colors’ (Itten, 1970, p 19), namely how colours work off each other. Harmonious colours are those located close together on the colour wheel or those with differing shades or tints of the same colours. A discussion on successive contrast – staring at an image, eg. a block of colour and then closing one’s eyes will reveal an afterimage (the afterimage always reveals the complementary colour of the object viewed) and simultaneous contrast (the colour tinges around a gray square on various coloured backgrounds will tend towards the complementary colour of the background). According to Itten, the brain is always trying to establish an equilibrium which tends towards medium gray. If one views a medium gray square against a gray background no afterimage will appear. Hence the fact that the afterimage is always the complementary colour (when mixed together the two colours will form a gray).

Itten then explains the 12-hue colour circle starting with the positioning of the three primary colours, yellow, red and blue in an equilateral triangle. A circle is then drawn around this triangle. Between each point of the equilateral triangle are three colours, the middle colour being a secondary colour, namely orange, violet and green. The colours on either side of these secondary colours are obtained by mixing a primary colour with a secondary colour to form the tertiary colours: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green. The twelve hues are evenly spaced and the complementary colours are positioned diametrically opposite each other.

Itten goes on to explain the seven kinds of colour contrast as he sees it:

  • Contrast of hue: this is the contrast of undiluted colours at their most intense brilliance, eg. red/yellow/blue.
  • Light-Dark contrast: this is the contrast of the extreme poles like day and night. Black and specifically black velvet is one of the purest blacks, while baryta is the purest white. Baryta is barium sulphate, a clay-like substance which is applied to fibre photographic paper before the emulsion is applied. Neutral gray lies midway between the black and white, mute and ready to be transformed or to give transformation to surrounding colours. Light-dark contrast give us our chiaroscuro.
  • Cold-Warm contrast: at the two polar opposites of this type of contrast we have red-orange and blue-green. The colours in between these poles can be either warm or cold, depending on what they are contrasted with, or what they represent, eg shadow, airiness and wetness fall into the cold category, while heavy, dry and the sun would fall into the warm category.
  • Complementary contrast: we have a complementary contrast if when we mix two colours together they form a neutral gray – this would be for a painter. If we were to mix two colours using light they be a complementary contrast if they form white. Interestingly enough the three primary colours are always present in the complementary colours, eg. yellow/violet = yellow, red + blue.
  • Simultaneous contrast: this cannot be photographed as this is the situation earlier explained about the afterimage. This is literally something you seen with closed eyes.
  • Contrast of Saturation: saturation measures the purity of a colour. Contrast of saturation is the contrast between intense, pure colours vs dull and diluted colours. Colours can be diluted with white, black, gray or mixing with the corresponding complementary colour.
  • Contrast of Extension: this is the contrast of colour between a large area and a relatively small one, in other words accent colours.

Of particular interest to me was Itten’s description of the colour sphere which was invented by Philipp Otto Runge. The sphere resembles a globe and is divided into seven zones (parallel circles) and twelve vertical meridians and the pure colours are placed along the equator line. White and black are at the north and south pole respectively and form a core around which the colour zones flow. The two zones from the equator line towards the white pole represent the tints, while the two zones from the equator line towards the black pole represent the shades. If we cut the sphere in half horizontally we will see that the centre is medium gray and if we do a cross section vertically, we will see gray graduations from white through to black in the core. Totally fascinating!

The colour harmony section is one of those challenging chapters, especially for someone who is math challenged like me. One of the sketches is a circle which has a parallel circle inside of it as well as some other geometric shapes has a caption reads: “The octahedron as a figure for constructing harmonious hexads in the color sphere” (Itten, 1970, p 74). Enough said! I sort of get this chapter but I definitely can’t explain it.

Itten then covers form and colour detailing the different personalities of colours and various shapes.

A picture whose expression is determined chiefly by color should develop its forms from color, while a picture stressing form should have a coloration derived from its form.

(Itten, 1970, p 76)

 The chapter on Spatial Effect of Colours deals with how we perceive colours, how colours interact with each other, eg. on a black background yellow advances and blue will retreat. On a white background blue advances while a red-orange hue will not advance as much. Saturation and extension contrasts also affect the depth effects of colours.

Itten comes almost full circle in the following chapter, Color Impression. He states that the study of colour impression rightly begins with the study of nature. Watching how the incident light falls and changes the colour of objects and lights them, how the colour of shadows change, etc. The colour of a leaf or flower is the complementary colour of the absorbed light waves being reflected back. The whiter the light, the purer the colours reflect. This would actually be quite an interesting exercise to photograph a flower or plant throughout the day and observe the different colour variations close up.

The chapter on the Theory of Color Expression still deals with nature elements. Itten shows how the four seasons contrast each other with their colours, and moods. Spring is depicted as a youthful time, new beginnings. The prevalent colours are yellow-green (signs of new growth) as we think of all the new plants and saplings growing. Pastel hues of new flowers complement this. Autumn or fall, as it is known in North America, is the complementary season to spring. During this season, the colour of the vegetation turns to the brown and red-orange hues as nature gets ready for the dormant season. Summer brings forth the abundance of colour bursting from all flowers and vegetation. Trees and plants grow thick and dense and the colour spectrum is literally bursting at the seams. Winter is the complementary contrast to summer, where we see dormancy set in, a period of slumber and darkness. Itten then concludes the chapter by summarizing each of the hues psychological and expressive values, eg. blue is always passive and cold.

The chapter on Composition is probably more applicable to painters than to photographers as they have total control of where they want to paint a specific colour on a canvas. Itten states that “the farther a hue is removed from a given hue in the color circle, the greater its power of contrast” (Itten, 1970, p 91). If the colour blue is painted low on the canvas, it denotes a heaviness. An image of the sea comes to mind. However, if the blue is painted high on the canvas, for instance, as the sky, the denotation changes to one of lightness.

Itten finishes his book a postscript with the following reminder:

So long as colors are bound to the world of objects, we can perceive them and recognize their relationships: their inner essence remains concealed from our understanding, and must be grasped intuitively. Hence rules and formulae can be no more than signposts on the way to color fulfillment in art.

(Itten, 1970, p 94)


Ballard, L. (1964). The Art of Color by Johannes Itten. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 22(3), 344.

Lecture, Prof. Pete Vukusic – Light Fantastic: The Science of Colour [webcast, online] School of Physics at Exeter University, UK, 2007. 1 hour 05 mins 11 secs. (accessed 01/09/2014).

Hahnemuhle FineArt Baryta [online] Available from: [Accessed 16 September 2014]

Itten, J. (1970). The Elements of Color. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company.


2 thoughts on “The Elements of Color – Johannes Itten

  1. Pingback: Assignment 3 – Planning | Lynda Kuit Photography

  2. Pingback: Assignment 3 | Lynda Kuit Photography

Comments are closed.