The Development of Personal Color Theory: Johannes Itten and The Art of Color

Swiss artist Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967) joined the German Bauhaus in 1919 and in time became known as one of the great 20th century masters of the art of color. His principles of color, published in The Art of Color (1961), serves as an artist’s guide to the harmony, form, impression and effect of color in art and painting. In addition, he postulated that people have subjective affinities to differing color harmonies based on their personal characteristics, which he refers to as their “aura”. He gave examples to illustrate his observations:

“Light blond types with blue eyes and pink skin incline towards very pure colors, often with a great many clearly distinguished color qualities. Contrast of hue is the basic feature. Depending on the forcefulness of the individual, the colors may be more or less luminous. A very different type is represented by people with black hair, dark skin, and dark eyes, for whom black plays an important part in the harmony.”

Itten advised people who work with color, such as florists, decorators and designers, to avoid selecting palettes based solely on their own personal tastes, but to take into consideration the occasion at hand and the inclinations of their customers.

“Salespeople whose customers are sensitive to color will be more successful if they try to understand their customers’ tastes rather than impose their own. Every woman should know what colors are becoming to her; these will always be her subjective colors and their complements.”

Itten espoused a theory of seasonal color that described his personal observations and impressions of color by season, as it appears in nature. He was careful to point out that our emotional reaction to color is highly subjective. He then described the Spring season as youthful, light and radiant, expressed with “luminous” colors, particularly yellow, yellow green, pink and lilac. He offered a general description of Summer color as “warm, saturated and active”, and said that “the colors of Autumn contrast most sharply with those of spring … decomposed into dull brown and violet”. For Itten, Winter colors, in general, expressed “withdrawal, cold and centripetal radiance, transparency, rarefaction.”

Although Itten never carried his theories into the realm of personal color analysis, it is interesting to see that he understood through his observations that color has a personal connection and a seasonal character. Meanwhile, in the United States, Suzanne Caygill was practicing an approach to personal color analysis that meshed with some of Itten’s theories, but was more precise and developed, and provided a practical application for wardrobe selection.

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