Bauhaus Color Theory: Itten, Kandinsky, Albers and Klee

Photo taken outside of Bauhaus building in Dessau, Germany

Whether you’re a fine artist, a homeowner selecting a color palette for your living room, or both, you already know that color has a profound psychological effect on all of us.

A lot of the way we view, teach, and talk about color comes from four prominent teachers at the Bauhaus, a German art school whose influence is still felt today.

The Bauhaus: a Primer

The Bauhaus was an art and design school that inspired a movement of the same name. It was founded in 1919 in Weimar, Germany, although it moved to Dessau and later Berlin.

The Bauhaus was only in operation until 1933. It closed due to constant harassment from the Nazi party, which condemned notable Bauhaus artists like Wassily Kandinsky as “degenerate.” The Nazis saw modernism, the broader movement of which Bauhaus was a part, as a symptom of the “disease” brought by communists and Jews.

Despite its short time in operation, the Bauhaus has had a lasting influence on many types of art. The school taught classes in design and advertising, carpentry, sculpture, building materials, mathematics, and of course, color and color theory. Now, let’s get into Bauhaus color theory as taught by Johannes Itten, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Josef Albers.

Johannes Itten

Johannes Itten color circle isolated on white background

From 1919 to 1923, Itten served as the Bauhaus Master and Deputy Director. This appointment came after Itten, who was originally from Switzerland, opened a private art school in Vienna.

Itten was responsible for developing the Bauhaus preliminary course, which was revolutionary in its time. Typically, art students would begin their time at an art school by copying the works of other artists. This would allow them to master use of materials and technical skills before creating their own pieces.

However, in Itten’s course, students were encouraged to create their own often abstract pieces based on their perceptions of the world. The course would teach them balance and use of materials in order to help students build a foundation, but the creative use of different media was never prescribed.

An integral part of this preliminary course was color theory. Itten would ask students to analyze the use of color (and the effects it had on the viewer) in abstract pieces. Once students had a grasp of the impact of color, they would begin studying more representative works of art and analyze the meaning of color there.

That said, Johannes Itten’s approach to color helped shape the way even non-artists view color. If you’ve ever taken an art class that had a color wheel on the wall, you can thank Itten. His color wheel divides primary, secondary, and tertiary colors, and it also shows the gradations between them.

Itten also was the first person to designate colors as “warm” or “cool,” and he strongly associated colors with moods. You may have heard that red walls in a dining room stimulate appetite, or that blue walls create a sense of comfort and peace. This is more evidence of Itten’s lasting contributions to color theory.

Itten also saw the importance of contrast in any kind of artistic work, and his teaching covered seven different types of contrast:

  1. Saturation contrast
  2. Light/dark contrast
  3. Contrast of extension
  4. Complementary contrast
  5. Simultaneous contrast
  6. Contrast of hue
  7. Contrast between warm/cool colors

Johannes Itten left the Bauhaus shortly after he started there, primarily due to disagreements with the school. However, Wassily Kandinsky, his successor, also contributed greatly to color theory as we know it today.

Wassily Kandinsky

Composition 6 painting by Wassily Kandinsky

You might already know Kandinsky from his surreal, geometric art pieces. Kandinsky’s work seems to come alive with color, and a lot of this is due to his deep, detailed understanding of color’s meaning. Kandinsky viewed color in a synesthetic way. That is, he would associate certain colors with musical tones or even certain shapes.

Kandinsky taught at the Bauhaus from 1922 until its closure in 1933, but his interest in color and its effects on people began long before that. Kandinsky’s 1910 bookConcerning the Spiritual in Art, takes the reader through different colors and Kandinsky’s perceptions about them. About green, Kandinsky writes, “I could compare completely green with a calm, broaching, middle tones of a violin.”

He connects the color white to a musical pause: “The white color affects our psyche as a great silence, which is for us absolutely. Internally, it sounds like a no-sound, which quite closely matches a pause in the music. This silence is not dead, it is full of possibilities.”

The Bauhaus movement was set apart by its close examination of color (among other things), and Kandinsky’s teaching built upon Itten’s connection of color to mood and feeling. Kandinsky’s synesthetic view of color mirrored some of Paul Klee’s color theory, too.

Paul Klee

Stamp printed in Germany with the Bird Garden painting by Paul Klee

Paul Klee’s time at the Bauhaus overlapped with Kandinsky to a certain degree. Klee taught there from 1921 to 1931. Klee was a highly celebrated abstract artist whose works helped shape the Bauhaus, surrealist, and expressionist movements.

Klee developed a book on artistic craft, Creative Credo, that was published in 1920. The book’s tagline was “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.” Perhaps not surprisingly, this tagline echoes a lot of the mission of the Bauhaus: to encourage artists to make meaningful art based on their own perceptions and not on reality. Largely as a result of his book, Klee was asked to joining the faculty at Bauhaus in 1920, and he agreed.

Paul Klee was a talented violinist, so it comes as no surprise that his approach to color theory also incorporated references to music. Notably, he connected complementary colors to the idea of notes in harmony. He also noted that dissonant sounds and clashing colors had similar effects on viewers and listeners.

Klee was quite influential across several artistic movements, and his influence was largely due to the way he viewed and taught color. At the Bauhaus, Klee encouraged his students to go beyond color’s traditional use – to accurately depict things seen in the physical world. By disconnecting color from this traditional purpose, Klee was able to revolutionize his own art and help students revolutionize their own.

Josef Albers

Homage to the Square painting by Josef Albers on a German stamp

Josef Albers, a German artist, was a student at Bauhaus before he became a professor there in 1925. Albers took a slightly different approach to color than his predecessors did. In his book, Interaction of Color, he wrote that “In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is – as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art.”

Albers wrote Interaction of Color long after leaving the Bauhaus, but his unique approach, and especially his focus on the deceptiveness of color, has a major impact on his teaching. But what is meant by “deceptiveness of color”? Albers pointed specifically to the relationships between different colors. For example, depending on the other colors surrounding them, two identical squares could look darker or lighter.

Like many Bauhaus artists and teachers, Albers focused on a more intuitive approach to color. He believed that an academic knowledge of color alone would not lead to great art, just as a logical understanding of musical composition would not lead to the creation of music. Albers focused especially on feeling the relationships between colors as opposed to just seeing them.

Albers wrote and taught a good bit about the relativity of color, so it’s no wonder that he paid careful attention to the different materials used in his paintings. Albers often kept copious notes detailing what materials went into each color he made. This careful attention to the physical reality of creating color, combined with his awareness of color’s emotional effect, came to define his approach to art and to teaching.

Josef Albers left the Bauhaus when it closed down in 1933, but he emigrated to America and continued his teaching career there. Notably, he became the head of the art department at Black Mountain college, a North Carolina institution that focused on creativity above more traditional higher education.

The Lasting Influence of Bauhaus Color Theory

Geometric shapes based on Bauhaus color theory

Despite its fairly short tenure, the Bauhaus as an institution remains one of the single most influential art schools of the 20th century. Today, we can still see the Bauhaus influence (and in particular, its influence on color theory and application). One of the most major impacts the Bauhaus has had is on design. Geometric shapes and eye-catching patterns, all of which had a carefully selected balance of colors, were a staple of Bauhaus art, and you can see these designs echoed in modern geometric abstract art.

Despite the rich color theory taught by Itten, Kandinsky, Klee, and Albers, many Bauhaus artists took a minimalist approach to design, which we can still see today. Countless billboards and internet ads incorporate a minimalist visual backed by a (no doubt carefully selected) splash of color.

Of course, you don’t need to be a fine artist to understand and appreciate the Bauhaus approach to color. After all, many of these teachers valued individual perception and the feelings colors created over an academic understanding of how art and color worked. The Bauhaus may not have been around long, but you don’t have to look far to find evidence of its influence.