Traditional Color Theory

Traditional color theory is is an amalgam of grounded practical theory, normative design theory, and constructivism. As such, it is underpinned by practical rather than purely scientific concerns and it represents a set of constructs, principles and linked axioms that are largely programmatic. The various constructs evident in traditional color theory have achieved a relatively strong level of consensus among theorists, practitioners and the general community alike, and represent a lingua franca that is used widely across applied design and design of the built environment. 

The factors that distinguish traditional color theories include: (a) an ontological focus on pigment color exploration and application in art, design, and architecture; (b) consideration of an exemplar set of ‘primary’ pigment colors from which a large gamut of color nuances can be created; (c) the provision of color combination guidelines for color exploration and application.

Traditional color theorists include but are not limited to Tobias Mayer (1758,1755), Moses Harris (1766), George Field (1817, 1835), Jean-François Léonor Mérimée (1830, 1839), George Hayter (1835), Michel-Eugène Chevreul (1855), and Albert Munsell (1905, 1913, 1915).  

The color theories of Itten (1961, 1975) and Albers (1963) are also included especially due to the impact of the Bauhaus in general, and these theorists in particular, on the evolution of traditional color theory. Specifically, the color component of the Bauhaus curriculum went on to influence color education at the Ulm School of Design (founded by former Bauhaus personnel) plus design and architecture schools in the USA, UK and Australia, and across the Western world. Gage contends that two of the most widely used texts on color in design and architecture schools in the twentieth century were Itten’s The Art of Color (1961) and Albers’ Interaction of Color (1963). 

Ontological focus - Pigment color

Traditional color theory has a particular focus on pigment (substance) color exploration and application. Dating back many centuries, this focus evolved initially in art and shifted to include applied design and design of the built architecture. This shift occurred during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; a period which saw the decline of a production system involving small, home-based craft-based and guild-based industries and the rise of mass production of objects. The shift to mass production plus the emergence of fully-fledged design and architecture professions prompted a shift from intuitive color application to a more structured approach to color application in applied design and the built environment.

Prior to the emergence of digital color technologies, color was often represented by watercolor. However, gouache paint superseded watercolor due to its ability to create large, flat areas of opaque color with ‘hard’ edges, its capacity to create, via intermixture of a limited number of colors, a large gamut of color nuances, and the speed and ease with which this medium could be used and applied in professional design output - design conceptualizations and renderings. Desk research reveals that gouache paint was most likely used in conjunction with traditional color theory in the works of numerous designers and architects including Owen Jones, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Henry Van Der Velde, Christopher Dresser, Frank Lloyd Wright, Arne Jacobsen among many others including teachers and students of the Bauhaus and Ulm School of Design.

Traditional color theorists generally acknowledged the complexity of color and its existence across diverse physical, perceptual, and psychological manifestations, and ever-changing contexts. Due to their practical experience with color, they were cognisant that humans can discern a huge range of color nuances, estimated to be between 1.8 million and ten million variations. In addition, they were generally aware that the possible number of color combinations is “almost infinite” (Hard & Sivik, 2001). In addition, color strategies were developed to address perceptual effects including simultaneous contrast, successive contrast, fixation effect and the impact of contextual color and ambient lighting.

Epistemological traditions 

Traditional color theory evolved with an emphasis on disseminating information about color exploration and application in art, applied design and the built environment. Key traditions include:  

  • Color is considered to have three key attributes: hue, value and saturation. Hue is the general color family cluster such as ‘red’, ‘blue’ or ‘orange’. Value (also referred to as tonal value, tone) is the level of lightness or darkness of a color sample; and saturation (chroma, chromaticity) is the level of color intensity or purity. 
  • Constructs that relate to hierarchical color classifications arising from the creation of color using pigments including ‘primary’, ‘principle’ or 'elementary’ color; ‘secondary’ color, and ‘tertiary’ color;
  • Conceptual color models - two-dimensional hue circles and/or three-dimensional color models that illustrate both hierarchical color classifications and relationships between these classifications;
  • Guidelines, principles and formulae intended to achieve ‘color harmony’ - although this construct was eventually dropped as it became clear that responses to color were complex and open to the impact of a range of factors
  • Constructs relating to color relationships such as ‘contrasting color’ and ‘simple harmonies’ (analogous color);  
  • Guidelines for color exploration and application in art, design, and architecture based on hierarchical color classifications and color relationships. In most texts, these guidelines remain just that: guidelines intended for inspiration, exploration, and augmented by intuitive use of color. 

Hierarchical color classification constructs 

The aims and intentions of traditional color theories revolve around color creation, exploration and application and, given the constructivist nature of many early theories through the 18th to 20th centuries, this led to the development of a range of constructs, which evolved in two key areas: hierarchical color classifications and relationships between these classifications.

Primary color, Secondary color and Tertiary color. In this context, ‘Primary’ colors represent archetype variants of red, yellow and blue (RYB) – that is, not necessarily specific colors that are more pure or unique than others but rather exemplar colors. 

François de Aguilón (1567-1617) is cited as the first person in the West to present an RYB color creation model based essentially on pigment color. In collaboration with the painter Peter Paul Rubens, de Aguilón devised a diagram illustrating the relationship of five 'simple' colors: yellow (flavus), red (rubeus) and blue (caeruleus), plus white (albus) and black (niger) for the creation of numerous color nuances. The 'simple' colors of red, yellow and blue create 'composite' colors: orange (aureus), purple (purpureus) and green (viridis). 

Since de Aguilón, hierarchical color classification constructs relating to ‘primary’ color and ‘secondary’ color changed little, and the same set of ‘primary’ colors (RYB) and ‘secondary’ colors (orange, green and purple) plus the additional construct of ‘tertiary’ color (arising from intermixture of ‘secondary’ colors) feature in the 18th and 19th century theories of Harris, Mayer, Field, Hayter, Mérimée, Chevreul as well as 20th century theories of Munsell, Itten and Albers.

Up until the mid to late 19th century, color exploration and application often revolved around a limited range of pigment colors for two key reasons. Firstly, access to pigments through to the Renaissance, was restricted due to geographic inaccessibility, limited trading opportunities and cost considerations. It was not until the Industrial Revolution period through to the mid nineteenth century that an ever-increasing development of pigments and dyes occurred, providing a greater range of accessible pigment colors. Secondly, prior to the development of synthetic pigments, natural pigment colors were often unstable and chemical variations inhibited effective color intermixture and color fastness.

Conceptual color models

Illustrations depicting conceptual color models are common in traditional color theory and include two-dimensional hue circles and three-dimensional color models. As with most conceptual models, these are simplistic and aimed at providing representations of construct hierarchical classifications and relationships between these classifications, and not intended to represent the complexity of color.

Tobias Mayer is credited with conceptualising the first color model based on intermixture of three RYB primary hues plus black and white, illustrated in Figure 1.  While Mayer’s color theory focused on pigment color and not spectral profile color, like many of his contemporaries, he never-the-less conflated these perhaps as a way of accommodating Newton’s theories about color. Mayer envisaged assembling a series of triangles into a three-dimensional shape, with white and black as polar vertices.

Figure 1. Color model, Tobias Mayer (1758 recreated by Jacques Lacombe in 1792; Mauricio Lucioni 2017), ‘Prismatic’ and ‘Compound’ hue circles, Harris (1766) and color model, Runge (1810).

Multiple traditional color theorists since Mayer presented color models based on the RYB triad and supported by detailed rationale and discussion (as per Harris, Runge, Field, Hayter, Mérimée, Chevreul, Munsell, Itten, and Albers). These color models invariably feature exemplar RYB colors; ‘secondary’ colors (orange, green, purple); and, in some cases, ‘tertiary’ colors, arising from intermixture of ‘secondary’ colors as well as value scales plus tints and shades, as per Harris’ ‘Prismatic’ and ‘Compound’ hue circles featured in Figure 1. Figure 2 features the hue circles of Hayter, Mérimée, Field and Chevreul.

Figure 2. Hue circles of Hayter (1826), Mérimée (1830), Field (1835), and Chevreul (1855).  

Albers proposed a simplified color model featuring RYB plus three ‘secondary’ colors (orange, green, purple), interspersed with three ‘tertiary’ colors; while Itten’s color wheel model is simpler and features RYB and ‘secondary’ colors only, as illustrated in Figure 3. More recently, Eliasson (2009) has created numerous hue circles including one wherein he worked with a chemist to produce pigments that correspond with each nanometre of the visible spectrum, illustrated in Figure 3. The prevalence of digital color technology prompted O’Connor to devise a hue circle based on the linear hue continuum commonly found in digital color software and apps, as illustrated in Figure 3.

FIGURE 3. Color illustrations, Albers (1963), Itten (1961), Eliasson (2009) and O’Connor (2020).

The RYB model did not encompass a methodology to identify and communicate color data. Initially, color matching was conducted manually but the unreliability of this process proved problematic for designers, architects and those applying color across diverse industry sectors due to mismatch issues. As a result, color notation systems were developed to aid identification and specification of color across diverse sectors including the Munsell system (initially launched 1913), the Pantone PMS system (launched 1963) and the NCS color system (launched 1979). These were often used in conjunction with the CMYK color specification system in the printing industry and Hex/HTML codes common in digital color technology.

Prescriptive guidelines, principles and formulae: Color harmony

Prescriptive guidelines, principles and formulae intended to achieve ‘color harmony’ abound in early traditional color theories. That guidelines for color harmony figured so prominently in these early theories indicates the practical application nature of this branch of color theory. However, these color harmony guidelines vary considerably and were often prescriptive, with some predicated on mathematically derived proportional allocation of color. For example, Ostwald’s theories are underpinned by an aesthetico-mathematical understanding as per his assertion “(color) harmony is order” as well as his approach to achieving color harmony which involved prescriptive color combination guidelines. Similarly, Munsell advocated a set of four rules based on hue (“use as few as possible”), value (“use a high value with a low value”), chroma (“use a strong chroma with a weak chroma”) and area (where “Area is inversely proportional to the product of Value times Chroma”) and he suggested that “Color harmony is attained when any three of [his] rules are followed”.

A second approach to color harmony is underpinned by the concept of balance and equilibrium of opposing forces.  While a number of color theorists were influenced by Goethe, who considered that color harmony revolved around two opposing colors: blue and yellow, this approach to color harmony harks back to Heraclitus and later Pythagoras for whom the universe was composed of opposing forces wherein harmony within any aspect of reality involved balance of these opposing forces. The concept of balance and the neutralisation of opposing forces feature in the color harmony theories of Munsell and especially Chevreul, who championed the role of ‘complementary’ colors in achieving color harmony and he ‘equated maximal contrast of the complementaries with maximum harmony’. Chevreul defined ‘Complementary’ colors as those that sit on opposite sides of his hue circle.

A third approach to color harmony is predicated on groups of colors that exhibit similarity in respect to color attribute, specifically, hue or value. Itten suggested that the color combinations often called ‘harmonious’ represented color combinations composed of similar hues or different hues pegged at similar value levels. The absence of sharp contrast was considered by Itten to contribute to ‘harmonious’ combinations. This approach is also reflected in the theories of Hard and Sivik, who suggest that empirical evidence points to a link between analogous colors and positive aesthetic response.32   

Despite these diverse approaches, the notion of color harmony is now recognised as a highly idiographic response contingent on the impact of a large range of mediating factors which have the capacity to influence positive to color.

Constructs: Color relationships and color exploration and application

A distinguishing factor of traditional color theories are constructs and guidelines intended for color exploration and application. In this context, guidelines often related to color relationships such as ‘contrasting color’, ‘complementary color’, ‘monotone’, ‘monochromatic’ and ‘simple harmonies’ (analogous color).  Check our post for a detailed discussion of these color strategies.

Some traditional color theories include highly prescriptive, strict guidelines which allowed minimal color exploration or intuitive use of color. For example, Munsell included strict guidelines in a text intended for primary to middle school children. In this text, Munsell’s emotive language revealed his somewhat snobbish bias and personal views about color: “Beauty of color flows from balance and measure. Tempered sensations – not extremes – are the source of refined pleasure and in this system, the crude extremes of red, yellow and blue which make the bill-poster hideous are replaced by those moderate degrees of color which abound in the best decorative and fine art”. 

More recent traditional color theorists allowed a far greater degree of color exploration in tandem with intuitive color application as per the theories of Itten and Albers. For example, Albers provided extensive guidelines for color application; however, he encouraged color exploration before the examination of color theory: “The aim of any such study (that is, study of color) is to develop – through experience – by trial and error – an eye for color. This means, specifically, seeing color action as well as feeling color relatedness…This book, therefore, does not follow an academic conception of “theory and practice”. It reverses this order and places practice before theory which, after all if the conclusion of practice”.

Itten advocated color exploration prior to the study of color theory and, in describing the Basic Course at the Bauhaus, Itten advises that the first color exercise involves mixing and painting patches of color, “Only through painting can the student discover the secrets of the world of colors…”. Itten articulates clear guidelines for color exploration, creation, and application; guidelines that influenced color curriculum for decades thereafter.  

It is primarily the theories of Itten, Albers and the Bauhaus in general that influenced the content and scaffold learning techniques evident in the color curriculum component of subsequent design and architecture schools across the Western world. In this context, color curriculum was often delivered in tandem with elements and principles of design which, in conjunction with the scaffold learning approach, provided students with the opportunity for the exploration and intuitive use of color and design for real-world projects in applied design and the built environment. Due to the practical nature of color curriculum, the experiential and perceptual study of color occurred in tandem with the practicality of color application and with references to color notation systems relevant to applied design and design of the built environment. 

An acknowledgement of subtle color gradations and nuances, as well as the emergence of digital color technology since the 1990s plus common computer-assisted design software programs and apps like Photoshop and Canva have transformed color exploration and application. It is likely that few designers and architects continue to use any form of pigment color with most opting to explore and apply digital color. Despite this, traditional color theory constructs continue to occur within this context and, while many aspects of traditional color theory have been left in the twentieth century, color constructs and color models that emerged in tandem with this branch of color theory continue to be referenced.

Criticism of traditional colou]r theory

Criticism of traditional color theory has been summarized by four issues: “(1) There are three primary colors: Red, yellow, and blue; (2) A simple hue circle or “color wheel” is all that is needed to illustrate all color relationships; (3) There are simple rules to establish harmonious color combinations; and (4) Using vague color categories or simple hue names are sufficient to attach meaning and effect to colors (“red is arousing”, “blue is calming”)” (Hirschler et al). However, this criticism represents a misconstrued interpretation of texts associated with traditional color theory such as Itten (1961, 1970, 1975) and Albers (1963). Plus, these issues indicate a lack of practical understanding about the context within which traditional color theory was utilized both in the past as well as in contemporary practice. 

A lasting legacy: The vocabulary of traditional color theory

Many of the constructs that evolved within traditional color theory have segued into a color design vocabulary that now serves as a lingua franca commonly used by designers, architects, and professionals concerned color application across diverse industry sectors. In this context, traditional color theory constructs have come to represent color strategies that are prevalent and widely employed in applied design, digital color, and design of the built environment. Check our post about color strategies. 

Updated June 10, 2023 © Zena O'Connor, Design Research Associates -

This post is an abbreviated version of two peer-reviewed papers: 

  • O’Connor, Z. (2021). Traditional colour theory: A review. Color Research and Application46 (4), pp838-847.
  • O’Connor Z. (2021) Traditional color theory. In: Shamey R. (Ed.) Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Selected References

Albers J. The interaction of color. New Haven, NY: Yale University Press; 1963.

Albert DM. François De Aguilon, Scientist and Architect. Archives of Ophthalmology, 1987; 105:468-469.

Aguilonii F. Opticorum libri sex Philosophis iuxta ac Mathematicis utiles. Antwerp: Balthasar I. Moretus 1613. Accessed June 5, 2020. 

Ball P, Ruben M. Color theory in science and art: Ostwald and the Bauhaus. Angewandte Chemie International Edition 2004;43:4842-4826.

Bauhaus Archive. Bauhaus archive – collections; 2020. Accessed June 10, 2020.

Bayer H, Gropius W, Gropius I. Bauhaus 1919 - 1928. London: Secker & Warburg; 1975.

Briggs DJC. The dimensions of colour – Subtractive mixing 2012. Accessed June 2, 2020.

Briggs DJC. Traditional and modern colour theory [video]; 2015. Accessed June 2, 2020.

Burchett KE. A Bibliographic History of the study and use of color from Aristotle to Kandinsky. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press Ltd; 2005.

Caivano JL. Colour from a gradualist perspective. In AIC2018 Colour and Human Comfort. Proceedings of the International Colour Association Conference, Lisbon; 2018. Accessed June 2, 2020.  

Chevreul, M.E. The principles of harmony and the contrast of colours (Trans. C Martel). Whitefish, MT: Kessinger; 1855.

Cleland TM, Munsell AH. A grammar of color; arrangements of Strathmore papers in a variety of printed color combinations according to the Munsell color system.  Mittineague, MA: The Strathmore Paper Company; 1921. Accessed June 10, 2020. 

Cleland, TM. A practical description of the Munsell color system. Baltimore: Munsell Color Co; 1937.

Crone R A. A History of Color: The Evolution of Theories of Light and Color. Springer: Netherlands; 1999.

Delamare F, Guineau B. Colour: Making and using dyes and pigments. London: Thames & Hudson; 1999. 

De Noblet J. Industrial design: Reflection of a century. Paris: Flammarion; 1993.

Eliasson O. Color experiments; 2009. Accessed August 5, 2020.

Eliasson O. Reality is ephemeral: Turner colour experiments. London: Tate Gallery; 2014. Accessed August 5, 2020.

Field G. Chromatics: An essay on the analogy and harmony of colours. A.J. Valpy: London; 1817. Accessed June 2, 2020.

Field G. Chromatography: A treatise on colours and pigments. Charles Tilt: London; 1835. Accessed June 2, 2020. 

Gage J. Colour and culture. London: Thames & Hudson; 1995.

Gage J. Colour and meaning: Art, science and symbolism. London: Thames & Hudson; 2000.

Getty Institute. Getty Research Institute Collections; 2020. Accessed June 12, 2020.

Goethe JW. Theory of colours (translated from German by Charles Lock Eastlake). London: John Murray; 1840. Accessed August 5, 2020.

Green-Armytage P. The value of knowledge for colour design. Col Res Appl 2006;31:253-269.

Hard A, Sivik L. A theory of colors in combination: A descriptive model related to the NCS color-order system. Col Res Appl 2001;26:4-28.

Harris M. The natural system of colours (Facsimile edition of 1963). New York: Whitney Library of Design; 1766. 

Hayter C. A new practical treatise on the three primitive colours. John Booth: London; 1826. Accessed June 10, 2020. 

Hirschler RCsillag PManyé PNeder M. (2018). How much colour science is not too much? Col Res Appl 2018;43:977– 992.

Hirschler R. Teaching colour wheels and complementary colours. Proceedings of the International Colour Association Interim Meeting, Stockholm (eds. I. Kortbawi, B. Bergstrom & K. Friedell Anter) 2008. CD-ROM Accessed June 2, 2020.

Itten J. The art of color (Revised edition, 1973). New York: John Wiley & Sons; 1961.

Itten J. Design and form: The basic course at the Bauhaus and later (Revised edition). New York: John Wiley; 1975.

Judd DB, Wyszecki G. Color in business, science and industry. New York: Wiley; 1975.  

Kapos P. Art and design: The Ulm model. London: The Raven Row; 2016. Accessed at Accessed May 15, 2020.

Kuehni RG, Schwarz A. Color ordered: A survey of color order systems from antiquity to the present. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2008.

Mayer T. Treatise on the Relationship of Colors in Tobias Mayer's Opera Inedita: The First Translation of the Lichtenberg Edition of 1775 (trans. Eric G. Forbes, New York, 1971. Accessed May 15, 2020. 

Mayer T. On the relationships between colors (by Tobias Mayer, 1775, translated by Adriana Fiorentini). Col Res Appl 2000;25:66-74.

Mérimée JFL. De La Peinture a L’Huile. Paris: Mme Huzard; 1830. Accessed June 2, 2020.

Mérimée JFL. The art of painting in oil and in fresco (English translation, W. B. S. Taylor). London: Whittaker and Co; 1839. Accessed June 4, 2020. 

Munsell AH. A color notation. Boston: Geo H Ellis; 1905. Accessed April 24, 2020.

Munsell A H. Color balance illustrated: An introduction to the Munsell system.  Boston, MA: Geo H. Ellis Co; 1913. Accessed August 5, 2020.

Munsell AH. Atlas of the Munsell Color System. Malden, MA: Wadsworth, Howland & Co; 1915. Accessed April, 24, 2020.

Munsell Color Company. Atlas of the Munsell Color System; 1913. Boston, MA: Munsell Color Company. Accessed May 6, 2020. 

NCS. NCS – our history; 2020. Accessed May 6, 2020.

Nemcsics A, O’Connor Z, Pompas R. Color Harmony. In Ronnier Luo (Editor) Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology. New York: Springer; 2016:322-328.

O’Connor Z. Colour harmony revisited. Col Res Appl 2010;35:267-273.

O’Connor Z. The Shillito Design School:  Australia’s link with the Bauhaus. The International Journal of Design in Society 2013;6:149-159. 

O’Connor Z. The Shillito Design School: An influential colour curriculum with historical links to the Bauhaus. Proceedings of AIC2019, International Association of Colour Conference (ed. José Luis Caivano); 2019:513-519.

O’Connor Z. Black-listed: Why colour theory has a bad name in 21st century design education. Proceedings of ConnectED 2010: 2nd International Conference on Design Education (Ed. Graham Forsythe), University of New South Wales, Sydney; 2010.

Ostwald W. Die Farbenfibel (The colour primer); 1916Cited in Gage J. Colour and meaning - Art, science and symbolism. London: Thames & Hudson; 2000.

Pantone. About Pantone; 2020. Accessed May 6, 2020. 

Parkhurst C, Feller RL. Who invented the color wheel? Col Res Appl 1982;7:217-230. 

Pointer MR, Attridge GG. The number of discernible colours. Col Res Appl 1998;23:52-54.

Raizman D. History of modern design. London: Laurence King; 2003.

Runge PO. Die Farben-Kugel, oder Construction des Verhaeltnisses aller Farben zueinander, Hamburg: Perthes; 1810. Accessed May 18, 2020. 

Ruskin J. The laws of Fésole: A familiar treatise on the elementary principles and practice of drawing and painting; As determined by the Tuscan Masters; Arranged for the use of schools (Volume 1). Kent: George Allen; 1879. Accessed August 12, 2020. 

Tate Gallery. Tate collections; 2020. Accessed June 25, 2020.

V&A Museum. Victoria & Albert Museum – Collections; 2020. Accessed June 25. 2020.

Winsor & Newton. History of the metal paint tube; 2015. Accessed January 20, 2020. 

Wise BK, Wise JA, Beach LR. The human factors of color in environmental design: A critical review. NASA Grant No. NCC 2-404. NASA Ames Research Centre: Moffett Field, CA; 1988.

About the author - Dr Zena O’Connor established Design Research Associates in 2006 and has focussed on evidence-based color strategies, insight, and recommendations for applied design and the built environment. Zena has completed numerous color design projects across commercial, residential and the healthcare and aged care sectors. A designer by training, Zena’s PhD research investigated color in the built environment (Faculty of Architecture, Design & Planning, University of Sydney). She has developed and taught university courses (Sydney University, University of NSW and Sydney Design School) and published 70+ peer-reviewed academic articles on color in applied design and the built environment.

Leave a comment