Johannes Itten’s The Elements of Color

Johannes Itten

22/09/07 – Excerpts from The Elements of Color: A Treatise on the Color System of Johannes Itten Based on his Book ‘The Art of Color’:

In the realm of aesthetics, are there general rules and laws of color for the artist, or is the aesthetic appreciation of colors governed solely by subjective opinion? Students often ask this question, and my answer is always the same: ‘If you, unknowing, are able to create masterpieces in color, then un-knowledge is your way. But if you are unable to create masterpieces in color out of your unknowledge, then you ought to look for knowledge.’ ( 7)

Doctrines and theories are best for weaker moments. In moments of strength, problems are solved intuitively, as if of themselves. (ibid.)

Knowledge of the laws of design need not imprison, it can liberate from indecision and vacillating perception. (8)

As the tortoise draws its limbs into its shell at need, so the artist reserves his scientific principles when working intuitively. (ibid.)

Color is life; for a world without colors appears to us as dead. […] Light, that first phenomenon of the world, reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors. (ibid.)

The eye and the mind achieve distinct perception through comparison and contrast. (17)

Once a theme has been conceived, the design must follow that primary and ruling conception. If color is the chief vehicle of expression, composition must begin with color areas, and these will determine the lines, he who first draws lines and then adds color will never succeed in producing a clear, intense color effect. Colors have dimensions and directionality of their own, and delineate areas in their own way. (18)

It is always advisable to juxtapose the hues to be employed in a composition, using a preliminary sketch to check color effects, before proceeding to execution. (54)

Now that these elements of color harmony have been suggested, it should again be emphasized that the choice of a chord and its modulation as the basis of a composition cannot be arbitrary. All procedures are governed by the subject matter, presented representationally or abstractly. The choice of a theme and its execution are a must, not a capricious will or a superficial maybe. Each color and each group of colors is an individual of unique kind, living and growing according to its immanent law.

The idea of color harmony is to discover the strongest effects by correct choice of antitheses. (74)

To compose in color means to juxtapose two or more colors in such a way that they jointly produce a distinct and distinctive expression. The selection of hues, their relative situation, their locations and orientations within the composition, their configurations or simultaneous patterns, their extensions and their contrast relationships, are decisive factors of expression. (91)

It is not the means of expression and representation that count in art, but the individual in his identity and humanity. First comes the cultivation and creation of individual; then the individual can create. (94)

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
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