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What is Bauhaus color theory?

What is Bauhaus color theory?

The Bauhaus was an influential art and design school operational in Germany from 1919 to 1933. Its unique approach to design education had a major impact on art, architecture, graphic design, interior design, industrial design, and typography. The school strongly embraced theories of color that affected the use of color across all artistic disciplines. Here we explore the key principles of Bauhaus color theory and how they revolutionized color in design.

Bauhaus Background

The Bauhaus school was founded in Weimar, Germany in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius. It arose from the merger of the Grand Ducal School of Arts and Crafts and the Weimar Academy of Fine Art.

Gropius’ vision was to create a new type of art school that abolished the traditional division between fine artists and craftsmen. He wanted to foster collaboration between disciplines and move away from the separation of the old schools.

The faculty at the Bauhaus included many influential artists that pioneered new approaches to color, including:

– Johannes Itten – Painter, designer, teacher
– Wassily Kandinsky – Painter, pioneer of abstract art
– Paul Klee – Swiss painter, influenced by expressionism and surrealism
– Josef Albers – Artist, educator, influenced by constructivism

In 1925, the Bauhaus moved to Dessau into a new building designed by Gropius himself. This building reflected the Bauhaus design philosophy with its airy studio spaces, large windows, and focus on functionality and clean lines.

The Bauhaus was operational until 1933 when it was shut down by the Nazi regime, who saw it as promoting unacceptably modernist and abstract art. But despite its short lifespan, the Bauhaus had an enormous influence that is still felt today in many fields of visual arts and design.

Johannes Itten and Color Theory

One of the most important instructors at the Bauhaus in terms of color was Swiss painter and designer Johannes Itten.

Itten developed a structured approach for working with color and teaching color theory. He devised several key color contrasts and categories that became fundamental to the Bauhaus method.

Some of Itten’s main ideas about color included:

– The 7 Color Contrasts – He identified 7 different ways colors can interact and contrast with each other (hue, light-dark, cold-warm, complementary, simultaneous, saturation, extension).

– The 12-Part Color Circle – Expanding on Isaac Newton’s color wheel, Itten divided the circle into 12 colors to enable nuanced mixing and balancing of hues.

– Subjective Experience of Color – Itten emphasized the need to study the psychological effects of color and how colors provoke emotional responses.

– Color Harmony – Certain color combinations are naturally harmonious, balancing or enhancing each other when combined. Itten sought out these harmonic color chords.

Itten was very influential during his time at the Bauhaus and introduced an experimental but methodical approach to color. His ideas formed a key part of the Bauhaus preliminary course.

Kandinsky and Color Symbolism

Wassily Kandinsky was an accomplished painter and instructor at the Bauhaus from 1922 to 1933. He is known as one of the pioneers of pure abstract painting.

Kandinsky viewed color as a powerful method of non-objective, abstract expression. He believed colors had symbolic meanings and the ability to convey emotions outside of any form or object.

Some of Kandinsky’s key ideas about color symbolism include:

– Yellow – Radiates warmth and life, activates and liberates. Associated with joy and knowledge.

– Blue – Spiritual, infinite, transcendent. Soothes and releases tension. Related to faith and longing.

– Green – Natural, organic, symbolizing growth and hope. The most restful color.

– Violet – Unsettling and melancholy. Evokes subconscious and memory. Associated with spirituality.

– Black – Silence, mourning, the end of things. Can also represent potential and rebirth.

– White – Complete openness, liberation. The inner sound of silence. Can mean emptiness and death.

Kandinsky produced his abstract compositions based on the emotional resonances between colors and forms. He prioritized the inner representation over outer reality.

Albers and Color Interaction

Josef Albers was both a student and a professor at the Bauhaus. He was interested in the illusion and deception of color.

Albers studied how colors are unstable and influenced by adjacent hues. His color theory focused on:

– Relativity – Colors are only defined through comparison, not absolute properties

– Interaction of Color – Colors shift and interact depending on placement and arrangement

– Deception – Color can trick the eye, defy expectations, convey optical illusions

– Quantity – Color perception alters depending on quantity/area of color

– Vibration – Juxtaposed colors appear to vibrate against each other

Albers created series like Homage to the Square to demonstrate his theories about the instability of color. These optically vibrant paintings play with perception through nested squares in shifting colors.

Albers Key Ideas Description
Relativity Colors are defined by comparison, not absolutes
Interaction Colors influence each other based on placement
Deception Color deceives and creates optical illusions
Quantity Color perception changes with quantity
Vibration Colors appear to vibrate against each other

Albers was highly analytical in his approach. He systematically studied the mutable, unstable nature of color through practical exercises and experimental artwork.

Bauhaus Color Theory Impact

The approaches to color developed at the Bauhaus radically shifted color theory and practice in the 20th century. Some of the key impacts include:

– Emphasis on Subjectivity – The Bauhaus looked at color psychologically and how it elicits emotion and associations. This changed color from a purely technical field to one with psychological depth.

– Non-Objective Use of Color – Color became a subject itself through abstract art, not bound to describing objective reality. This expanded the expressive possibilities of color.

– New Color Harmonies – The Bauhaus discovered new ways of blending and arranging colors harmoniously to enhance vibrancy and dynamism. This opened up color palettes.

– Interaction and Relativity – Studying color interaction revealed that color is not fixed. This brought a new awareness of color relationships in context.

– Cross-Disciplinary Influence – The Bauhaus spread its color theories widely, shaping visual art, graphic design, architecture, photography, theater design, and more.

– Practical Education – The focus on learning by doing helped proliferate Bauhaus color ideas as students became teachers themselves.

– International Reach – Many Bauhaus artists fled Nazi Germany and continued teaching elsewhere, spreading ideas globally. This impacted art worldwide.

The Bauhaus pioneered color theory that is still relevant and widely taught today. It took color in groundbreaking new directions and its influence can be seen across all visual fields. Understanding Bauhaus color thinking sheds light on the foundations of modern color practice.


The Bauhaus school championed new approaches to color that veered away from tradition and embraced color subjectivity, interaction, and abstraction. Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Josef Albers were key figures who theorized pioneering ideas about color and its aesthetic and psychological effects.

Core Bauhaus contributions included studying color contrasts and harmonies, the symbolism of color, the relativity of color, and the vibrations between colors. Their revolutionary ideas challenged assumptions about color and launched it into the realm of expressionism and abstraction. The cross-disciplinary Bauhaus gave color theory renewed depth and meaning that continues to permeate the visual arts today. Understanding Bauhaus color thinking provides insight into the origins of color aesthetics in the 20th century.