Reading time: 6:30 | How authoritarian theories and expectations are thwarting our creative understanding of colour.
Before Leonardo takes the floor at the end of this short essay, I would like to say that I always try to get to the bottom of the truth as far as I can, whenever I am interested in the subject. If anyone has a better idea on this subject, they are most welcome.
As early as kindergarten, we are told what works and what doesn’t work in colour. At the age of 3 at the latest, we know that pink is not a colour for boys. At 16, when we believe that we won the battle of independence, we only follow the paths of our peers slavishly and tell ourselves one of the first lies in life, namely that we would freely choose the colour combination of our clothes.
One might think that art lessons at school broaden our horizons, free us from said corset and help us to take back control of our colour reception and use. But the opposite is the case. We learn to paint colour circles, to sort coloured pencils into the right colour sequence and other nonsense, such as that green is only a second class colour — although green is so dominant and welcome in our everyday life as the colour of living nature.
Those who are supposed to teach young people how to work with colours, in doubt, use the well-known recipes: mixing pigments with the colour paintbox in connection with Johannes Itten’s colour circle and colour theory, a little bit of art history to illustrate far-fetched explanations of colour reception, and — for final confusion — the RGB concept of additive colour synthesis as the physical basis of photography, digital colour synthesis and the physiology of human vision. In the end, there are inconsistencies, knowledge deficits and mental overloads, which start with the simple question of a pupil to his art teacher (who was me), why green is not a primary colour. That all can end, believe me, into a lifelong corset of conventions and strange theories of colour perception.
If one questions familiar worlds of imagination, the first reaction of the fellow human beings is usually to cling to the standard and reject the new. In art, in culture in general, and science for that matter, such behaviour is devastating. It thwarts creation and freedom — and that Joseph Beuys’ statement everyboy is an artist will finally become a reality.
Questions of design thus remain elitist because only a small part of the population has sufficient self-authority to defy conventions, and is free enough to make taste decisions without having to follow the majority and popular doctrines. One could argue — in the sense of an open society according to Karl Popper — we are only free when (among many other questions) questions of taste are no longer subject to the dictates of ideologies and dogmas. In an ideal world, we help each other with argument and counter-argument to come closer to the truth.
On the one hand, fashionable conventions are to blame for the misery. As an authoritarian force, they take away essential decisions of colour design from people at a young age and thus clearly obstruct the development of a personal sense of colour. On the other hand, art lessons, after all a school subject taught for years alongside physics, chemistry and geography, do not promote our colour perception either, but rather fill it up with sometimes crude theories. In German art education, Johannes Itten’s Art of Colour is the bible for everything that has to do with colour theory. And this is also where the crazy idea derives that green is not a primary colour.
In the history of colour theory, there is a widespread attempt to clarify the subject of colour in holistic colour theories for good. In doing so, the compulsion to sort (usually in a circle), and the romantic idea that everything must be connected create wild extravagances, such as the idea that mixing colours determines their effect. According to Johannes Itten, for example, the mixing of red and blue (resulting in violet) is supposed to create complementary contrast with yellow (the complementary colour to violet in Itten’s circle), which increases to its highest luminosity. He writes: Two complementary colours are a strange pair. They are opposite, challenging each other, rising to the highest luminosity in juxtaposition and destroying each other in the mixture to greys — like fire and water.
That is utter nonsense. Yellow and violet next to each other look a little strange and unusual because they can hardly be seen in that combination in nature and everyday life. But highest luminosity? What does mixing colours have to do with the perception of colours? One is a physiological, neurological and psychological process, the other, well, the mixing of two colour pigments. Itten extends this idea to the two other primary colours blue and red, whose complements from his colour circle are orange and green, and which increase to the highest luminosity in juxtaposition.
Furthermore, he continues with the colour-in-itself contrast or simultaneous contrast. Here, yellow, red and blue stand side by side as full colours. That is meant to be the most substantial contrast of all. The reason why green is not included is that green is not a primary colour, as it can be mixed from yellow and blue pigments and, according to Itten, is, therefore, a second-order colour. Pigments and their mixture thus control our perception.
While physicists, scientists in general, want to understand how the world works and must be prepared to give up their opinions at any time for the truth, artists are quite different. Goethe, for instance, with his work On Colour Theory was inspired by the desire to go down in history as a scientist searching for the truth (as it is well known, he failed in doing so, his works on colour synthesis did not resist scientific research even in his time). But things are different with Johannes Itten. As a former master of the Bauhaus and lifelong didactic, he wanted to nail down the world of colour in an authoritarian manner for all time and not, like Goethe, to put it up for discussion. Eloquent esotericism, coupled with the power of the circle and quite some knowledge of art history in his sleeves, plus a massive oeuvre of colour-didactic works, makes him the supreme father of art teachers to this day.
What needs to be done to unravel this tangle? The first thing to do is to separate the perception of colours and the synthesis of colours, whether coloured light or pigments. From now on, the world of colours is simpler. The question is no longer, what effect does the mixing of pigments have on the perception of colours? but only the question, how do colours affect us? remains. With this new freedom, I gave colours in my environment a fresh thought. This what I came up with:
There are apparently two ways for us humans to perceive colours:
Colours that we perceive, but hardly pay any attention to,
and colours that catch our eye.
The first category I call consumption colours, the second category signal colours. For Europeans, in many cases, the green of the leaves and the blue of the sky are consumption colours. Red, orange and yellow, on the other hand, we usually perceive as signalling. But it would be a mistake always to regard green as a consumption colour of lesser importance because it depends on the situation and the cultural characteristics of the individual how we view the colours we perceive at a particular moment.
Now I know why I hardly notice the green of the garden, but I do notice the red roses and why many people like to photograph red sunsets, but hardly fleecy clouds on a blue sky. I also know why the beach and the sea, just like the forest, give my eyes peace, but a rainbow stirs me up.
The simple realisation that the effect of colours has nothing to do with their synthesis, and that there are colours that have no great significance and there are colours that force my attention has solved the problem of colour theory for me. There is no all-explanatory colour theory which includes the synthesis of colours and the reception of colours in one go. And that is why crude contrast ideals, constructed from circles and following the sorting compulsion of colours, make no sense. The only thing that counts is us, the viewer’s and our unique view of things. Nobody would deny that our reception is influenced by culture and situation. But neither one would want it to be clouded with esotericism in the classrooms and seminar rooms. But that is what happens in German schools and universities.
Of course, Leonardo da Vinci also dealt with colours in a theoretical way. If people had listened to him, my art teacher would have told me back then, green is, of course, a primary colour. For Leonardo, green, yellow, blue, red, white, black, ochre and blackberry are primary colours, and these are the colours on which he primarily bases his paintings. And he doesn’t care how they are mixed; his main concern is that they do their magic. But he was not only an incomparable artist but also an ingenious scientist.