Teaching colours with the light model
InSEA (International Society for Education Through Art) 33. congress

In this paper I am going to demonstrate some inconsistencies of the present education of colours. In my opinion, basic education in this topic does not support advanced training at all. Instead, it rather clashes with it. Actually, there is a sore need for a reconsideration of the educational tradition of colour theory. In this paper I will also make a proposal for a more practical model to be used in teaching.

Colour theory presently used in education

For the time being colour theory is taught based on Johannes Itten’s theory and pedagogic method. This is taught in basic education, and is the foundation on which to build later, at advanced levels at art academies, too.
Itten taught in the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus did not advocate any coherent colour theory, teachers used their own methods in practice. As a matter of fact, Itten’s theory was not a completely new one, he compiled old ones, in which the basic objective rules met ideas based on his own experiences, like the seven colour contrasts.(1) Contrasts were categorised very effectively -- they are still usable in teaching about colours. Itten itemized the relations among colours and forms: red square, yellow triangle and blue circle. His theory based on complements aims to achieve colour harmonies.
Itten worked with three ‘primary colours‘, red, blue and yellow. Mixing these three primaries would make the ‘secondary colours‘, which are orange, green and purple. His colour wheel is supposed to be used to read the complementary colours easily, even mechanically. This is the model still being in use when we talk about basic colours, colour mixing and education in colour theory.
Interestingly, trying to paint Itten‘s colour wheel hardly brings good results. My experience at demonstration classes in elementary schools is that kids are often disappointed by the task of mixing colours with the given paints. Painting the colour wheel is boring indeed; in addition, getting ugly coloured blotches after the mixing is too much of a bad experience. Some kinds of mixed colours are there of course, however, they are never as bright as expected after Itten’s colour wheel. (Teachers who give kids the task of painting the colour wheel must hope for success, I assume. Later, when consoling sad kids, it is better to say that the paint is not good enough, rather than blame the kids for not being clever enough to create good results. Such is perversity anyway, why do not teachers give more adequate shades, we might think? Little is the chance that the used colours are the right ones.)
Never have I met anyone who could generate a purple, which looks similar in hue to the one in the colour wheel by mixing conventional reds and blues. My own results, for instance, were brownish or greyish purples, depending on the type of blue I used. Since the primary colours generate the secondary colours, the secondary colour results might be really different from what we expect.
Finally, there are two problems in the present practice of teaching colours at basic levels: one is the constant feeling of failure, another is that what we say does not seem to be true.

What is the problem with Itten’s model?

In psychological terms, humans perceive four of the most important colours. Human perception separates 4 main colours.(2) All the other colours are conceived as containing other colours as well. E.g. orange is perceived as a mixture of red and yellow; either warm yellow, which contains red, or red, which contains a lot of yellow. Green is perceived to be a substantive basic colour and not to be a mixture of blue and yellow, though we know that we can create green paint from blue and yellow pigments.
Are there three or four basic colours in fact? We know that both statements are true: in human perception there are 4 main colours, and in practice three colours are sufficient to create new ones (theoretically all hues) by mixing. Itten‘s pedagogy deals with three basic colours from among these four main colour categories. But which one of the four did Itten leave out and why? We know that he left out green, since he classified it as a mixed (thus secondary) colour. However, in no way follows his statement (that the basic colours used in colour mixing should be the red, yellow and blue) from any research in cognitive psychology. We comprehend that green can be created by mixing (blue and yellow) but we also know that red and blue are colours produced by mixing other colours as well. Which, I admit, is not so obvious, since human perception regards red and blue as substantive entities. This duality is truly the root of many problems, however, it is not a good enough reason to come up with a theory, in which there is a little bit of both. I wonder, why the logic, which singles the green out from among its other three fellows, had never been queried? Why was only green considered as a mixed colour, why were the others not? Was it unknown, which two colours needed to be mixed for getting red or blue? What are the basic colours in fact? (Is it correct if we call them basic at all? What are the other terms --like primary, clear, main, parent, generated or elementary-- used for? I prefer using the term ‘basic colours‘, and by this I mean that a basic one is a colour, which cannot be created by the mixing of others, a colour, that we definitely need to acquire somehow, and based on these colours all the other hues can be produced. The other terms are all slightly different in their meanings.)
Red is the end product of mixing magenta and yellow, blue is the end product of mixing magenta and cyan. Hence, the three basic colours are magenta, yellow and cyan when we mix pigments (subtractive mixing). If we project coloured lights over each other, red, green and blue are the basic colours (additive mixing). Basic subtractive colours and basic additive colours are the complementary colours of each other. All these facts are well known from computer studies and printing.
Only painting and fine arts are the disciplines which think and work differently. I accept that. Red, for example, has many symbolic meanings, it is keyed with fire, blood, power, sun, fight, heat, among other symbols. Should one be artist, these are essentials indeed to take them up. Above all, finding magenta and cyan pigments could not have been an easy task. Red pigments were easy enough to find in nature, and they also obviously satisfied the human perception of the main colours. There had been no appropriate answer to the question whether red was a colour to be created by mixing, because it was not even considered a question. Hence the colour magenta and its importance were unknown for a long time. Magenta is not even among the colours of the rainbow. Magenta does not have its own wavelength number value, the spectrum does not include hues between its two endpoints: violet and red. The fact that real, clear magenta was not possible to produce by mixing had not even become known. Magenta-like pinks were produced by mixing all kinds of reds, blues and whites for a long time. Magenta pigments are very rare in nature, and producing magenta was a task that went unsolved for a long time, even when -- in theory -- it was already clear what to look for. Magenta appeared in descriptions only in the 18th century, in personal experiences, which were not possible to reproduce in printing. These all conducted artist regarding e.g. red a main colour for artworks. I reckon all these facts could have caused the procrastination in recognising magenta as a basic colour for creating others.
However, the above mentioned circumstances are not coherent enough to build basic education on them. Only after understanding the basics can we add more information. Were we to give correctly the doses of curriculum, it will modulate the knowledge rather than clashing the deatils.

The light model

Electronics and computer technologies can obviously not influence the present educational and pedagogical methods, since these were created before the digital revolution. However, gadgets like televisions, mobile phones, screens, or projectors are so common nowadays, that they might be considered collective experiences, and as a result, education could be built on them. I advocate that teaching about colours should be based on the characteristics of colour lights.
Projecting red, blue and green colours over each other produces white. This fact is taught sometimes, but typically not at basic levels and not as an experience through demonstration., So magic is the spectacle that it should not be ignored. Under no circumstances can it be substituted by showing paper pictures. Placing objects into the shaft of light creates shadows, which have beautiful, bright colours, magenta, yellow and cyan. I find it remarkable that the characteristics of basic colour lights guide us very logically and easily to the basic colours used in printing, and also the definition of complementarity. Subtractive and additive types of colour mixing do not clash in this model, and mentioning them together on the same platform would not be a capital offence, as mentioned in all the important professional writings.(3) Not only will not conflict the two methods at basic level education, but also teachers could allude to everyday physical and optical phenomena, or results of other contemporary science at more advanced levels as well.
The good thing is that any course can be built on this base, regardless of the length of the course or the amount or type of information we want to convey or the knowledge of the students, even at university levels. In my view, this model provides a foundation, which is strong enough to carry all the other information one can get through life long education, without any inconsistencies, no matter, whether the student later becomes a painter working with pigments or a computer expert working with light.


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Arnoldi, Per: Colour is Communication. Birkhauser, Basel, 2007.
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(1). The seven colour contrasts: 1. The contrast of saturation, 2. The contrast of light and dark, 3. The contrast of warm and cool, 4. The contrast of complements, 5. Simultaneous contrast, 6. The contrast of hue, 7. The contrast of extension.
(2). Anthropological research and surveys conducted among preverbal children confirm that human perception deals with 4 main colours. The same results were received by physiological and neural research too: e.g. in observing the answers of different LG cells in the brain to light of different wavelength; or naming different colours. The most accepted theory of human colour perception also verifies the same.
(3). For example: Albers, Josef: Interaction of Color. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1975; Arnheim, Rudolf: A vizuális élmény. (Art and Visual Perception) Gondolat, Budapest, 1979; Itten, Johannes: A színek művészete. (Art of Colours) Corvina, Budapest, 1978.