Creative use of color has always been a hallmark of artists and skilled craftspeople. Just follow the easy-to-understand instructions below and add to your repertoire of creative techniques! We've also included a brief history of contemporary Color Theory and of the man who invented it, Johannes Itten. Itten developed the perfect visual tool: a 12-color wheel. With his color wheel, it is fun and easy to develop color schemes that work.
How the Color Wheel Works
The wheel starts with the three primary colors equidistant from each other: yellow, red and blue.
Mixing two primaries creates a secondary color. The three secondaries are: orange, violet and green.
Mixing a primary color with a nearby secondary color yields a tertiary color. The six tertiaries are: yellow-orange, red-orange, red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green and yellow-green.
Here are four basic color schemes: monochromatic, analogous, complementary and split-complementary.
Monochromatic Scheme: The most simple way to create a beautiful piece is to use the same color throughout, but by using lighter and darker elements. Shown are various shades and tints of green.
Analogous Scheme: Always pleasing to the eye are colors that are close to each other on the wheel, like yellow to orange to red-orange.
Complementary Scheme: Nothing stirs excitement like the eye candy, high contrast effect of a complementary color scheme. Complementary colors are directly opposite each other on the color wheel and are always stimulating if their hues are pure. A beautiful, more subdued harmony can be achieved by using light or dark complementary pairs.
Split-Complementary Scheme: This scheme combines the effect of the powerful complementary scheme with a variation on the analogous scheme. It offers intriguing possibilities in complexity and sophistication. Determine a key color. Then go directly across the color wheel to find its complement. Instead of the complement, use the two colors that you find next to it. In this example the key color is green. Instead of green's complement (red), its split-complements were chosen: red-orange and red-violet.
The History of Modern Color Theory
The father of contemporary color theory was Johannes Itten, who published his revolutionary "The Art of Color" in Germany in 1961. His work incorporated the ideas of artists like Leonardo da Vinci, Titian and Rembrandt and scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Ewald Hering. In developing his theories, he drew on a world-wide experience that included his study of Eastern philosophies, the wisdom of the Chinese and the Hindus and his knowledge of art from around the world. Itten was absorbed by the work of the old masters and he was also a vital participant in modern art movements, taking his place at the Bauhaus School alongside artists Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. His color exhibits are included in permanent museum collections in Europe and America.
Itten's color wheel and ideas on color harmony are based on science and the mechanics of human vision. He helped demonstrate the phenomena of "successive contrast," which happens when the brain creates an afterimage of a color when we look at it for an extended time (example: red is the afterimage of green). That afterimage is always exactly the color's complement on the color wheel! Itten recognized that our brains are programmed to find color equilibrium and to recognize harmonies.
In the end, color remains subjective and is always experienced uniquely by different observers. Familiarity with widely accepted color schemes, however, will help the designer create "winning" pieces. Itten said, "Knowledge of the laws of design need not imprison ... it can liberate from indecision and vacillating perception."
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