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Bauhaus Color Theory

A woman looking at photos of Bauhaus architecture in a museum.
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In 1919, the Bauhaus -- a radical new concept for a craft guild that would unify architecture, painting, sculpture and design into one artistic association -- was founded in Germany. Students, artisans and designers worked together to develop useful and beautiful objects that used traditional and innovative materials and methods. Color theory was a staple of the curriculum, and several distinguished Bauhaus teaching artists' visions of color use influenced generations of 20th-century designers.

Paul Klee

Tubes of paint oozing onto a white surface.
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Paul Klee examined the dynamic transitions that occur when an artist fiddles with color saturation and values. A value is how light or dark a color is, and saturation refers to the purity or intensity of a color. Klee observed that changes in value or saturation elicit different feelings in a viewer. He shaped a six-color rainbow into a color wheel, and taught students about the differences in visual perception of color in paint and the nature of color as light. Klee explored mixing colors, glazing over colors, and the way the eye sees an image of a complement after staring at a single color for a while -- stare at a yellow shape against a white background, for example, and then close your eyes and the shape will be purple, yellow's complement on the color wheel.

Josef Albers

A woman examining a colorful painting in a gallery.
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Josef Albers was a poet, print maker and Bauhaus teacher who noted that the perception of color is always relative and subjective, and that the relationship between colors could alter what we see. He located a color firmly within its composition -- pink against a rose background looks completely different from that same pink in a sea of green. Albers believed that color was magic and that there could be no hard-and-fast rules about color perception. He taught students that the quality of attention paid to an object would reveal its hues and depths, and that people feel as much as see color -- so the quality of a blue, for example, was always determined by the viewer. Albers demonstrated this color mutability with his own series of identical square paintings in which changes in hue, saturation and values affect how the colors look. The link between composition and color is clear, because each painting appears dramatically different despite sharing the same proportions.

Wassily Kandinsky

A museum patron browsing a Kandinski exhibit.
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Wassily Kandinsky discovered that the intersection of lines, planes and colors created an impression in the viewer unrelated to the subject of the painting. He began to experiment with nonrepresentational paintings -- abstraction -- using geometric shapes and lines and not containing color within a shape. He colored, very deliberately, outside the lines. Kandinsky, considered by many to be the pioneer of abstract art, may have had synesthesia -- he could see sound as colors and hear colors as music. He taught Bauhaus students that color itself, not the thing that was colored, evoked a response, and that the juxtaposition of line and color resulted in a sense of movement.

Johannes Itten

An interior designer using the 12-color wheel to choose paint colors.
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The Expressionist Johannes Itten taught a color theory at Bauhaus that is still used to introduce art students to color today. He developed a 12-color wheel based on three primary, three secondary and six tertiary colors: red, yellow, blue; green, orange, violet; and tertiary -- red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet, red-violet. Itten assigned specific emotions to colors, and labeled hues either "warm" or "cool." He worked to create startling color contrasts, using saturation, light and dark values, complements -- opposites on the color wheel -- and juxtaposed warm and cool colors. Itten showed students how placing opposite colors next to each other caused viewers to see vibration or shadows. He theorized that warm colors seem to move forward because they are comforting and attractive to observers, and cool colors recede because they inspire feelings of melancholy or sadness. His color principles work equally well for artists and interior designers.

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