Wednesday, April 19, 2017

300+ Years of Color Theory: Principles of Color

This book is included in a reading list on the history of Color Theory. Find the homepage for the series here.

Principles of Color, originally published in 1969 is an elementary book about color. The publisher writes in the Introduction that they hope (and even expect) this book to become fundamental for teaching artists and designers about color.

This book does include a very nice synopsis of the history of color circles beginning with Sir Isaac Newton in 1666 and progressing through Wilhelm Ostwald in 1916. Included is also a basic description of the subtractive, additive, and psychological (opponent theory) color systems.

In the chapter dedicated to the Harmony of Colors, Birren gives a synopsis of harmonies presented by M. E. Cheverul in his 1839 book, The Principles of Harmony and Color Contrasts. These are basic harmonies in a color wheel; analogous, complementary, split complementary, and various triads.

Birren uses the Ostwald system to base his simplified version which he calls the Color Triangle.


He explains many principles of color harmony using his Color Triangle, which is all taken directly from Ostwald’s color solid. These include making straight lines across any given Color Triangle to find naturally harmonious combinations. I think Birren created his Color Triangle as a simplified way to present theories of Ostwald, but I personally think in this case it’s better to just go to the source and learn how to use Ostwald’s system. The basic principles are the same, but there is infinitely more variety by using the Ostwald system, and the ability to see even more interesting color combinations.

In the last section of the book, Birren describes how to use color to create different “effects” and includes detailed color illustrations.

As a student of the fine arts, we learned about light effects by completing multiple exercises to train our powers of perception and draw (or paint, or sketch, etc.) the subjects we were studying. The two main color theory books I read at the time also included many concrete assignments, exercises and experiments to help the student learn and discover how to use color in art and design (Josef AlbersInteraction of Color and Johannes Itten The Art of Color).

It seems strange to me that Birren gives such a formulaic approach on how to attain effects such as luster, iridescence, and transparency with color. In fact, it seems strange to author a book meant to be the foremost introductory and fundamental book on color for artists and designers and not to include any hands-on assignments or experiments to help the student learn how to use these principles to the fullest.

I’m also surprised that we didn’t use this book when I was studying fine arts, as the original publication date of 1969 is right in line with Itten and Albers books published in 1961 and 1963 respectively. But here it is 20+ years after graduating with my BFA and I’m just reading this book for the first time!

The strength of Birren’s Principles of Color is the concise history of the color wheel and thorough, condensed explanation of Chevreul’s historic harmonies of color. My personal feeling is the lack of practical experience through exercises for students to follow and really learn the principles of color is the downfall of this book. It’s what makes Itten and Albers books ultimately superior—although they are not as thorough on the history of the color wheel, they both give students the tools needed to really discover and understand the principles of color.


There are copies of Principles of Color still floating around out there (some still in libraries) and if you’re interested in learning more about the history of the color wheel it’s a must read.

No comments: