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Color: Color Theory

What is Color Theory?

One of the most important criteria we have to consider when we paint, design a building, or put together an outfit is our choice of color. Which colors complement each other and which ones clash, and why? What are the effects of vibrant colors as opposed to subdued ones? Color Theory is the science that attempts to determine a logic and reasoning to color interaction in art and design. Modern color theory is said to be pioneered by Isaac Newton and his color wheel delineating between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. From there, important concepts that would later be developed in color theory include color temperature, color schemes (monochromatic, analogous, complementary, triadic, etc.), and color harmony. 

An important paradigm shift in color theory came in the 20th century with the work of Bauhaus artist Josef Albers. In his 1963 book Interaction of Color, Albers noted that our perception of color can shift under different contexts, and that each individual can look the same object and perceive its color differently. The inherently subjective nature of color perception therefore makes determining a consistent theory of color extremely difficult if not impossible. However, as the Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt notes in their profile of Albers: "The loss of all certain­ties, according to Albers, is not a drama in itself, but rather a neces­sary catharsis in order to delve more deeply into the mate­rial and thus actu­ally to reach real find­ings in the first place."


  1. What is Color Theory? | Interaction Design Foundation:
  2. Thinking in colors? On the revolutionary ideas of Josef Albers - SCHIRN MAG:

The Color Theory of Josef Albers

In place of systems, Albers developed an “experimental way of studying color and teaching color,” a method based on the idea that only by observing color in the push and tug and pull of context can one begin to understand the nature of color. His color course, which he inaugurated at Black Mountain College, comprised a sequence of simple exercises, each of which isolated some aspect of color interaction so as to observe that interaction carefully. As presented in the course, these exercises were essentially challenges: Can you get these colors to do this? Can you find the colors that will do that? Although Albers characterized color as “passive,” “deceptive,” and “unstable,” he recognized that its behavior was, to some extent, predictable. His exercises therefore focused on color in specific contexts, showing that if you put color A next to color B, or these colors next to those, you could anticipate certain results. Moving from simple to complex, with many exercises exploring the ramifications of a previous one, the course awakened the students to the quirks and variables of color behavior. The course was not a fixed body of color wisdom, but rather an ongoing inquiry in which solutions were not conclusions, but steps on an endless path.

From The Josef & Anni Albers Foundation

Photo of Albers via Wikimedia Commons


Study for Homage to the Square (via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0. )

Books on Color Theory

Subject Terms at NYPL

There are many more books related to color theory at NYPL. You can find some of them by browsing by these subject areas in the NYPL catalog: