Project 3: Understanding the Use of Colour

I carried out some research on the history of colour theorists. Early studies of the nature of colour began with Aristotle who in 330 B.C. arranged five chromatic colours on a line between black and white, in this image it shows that the lighter colours begin with yellow close to white and darker colours begin with blue close to black.

Fig. 1 – Aristotle’s Linear system of colour theory
Fig. 2 – Aristotle’s colour theory drawing

Aristotle believed that God sent down the colours from heaven as celestial rays. He identified four colours corresponding to four elements: earth, fire, wind and water. These four elements are what we know today as earth being associated with brown and green, wind associated with blue, white, yellow or grey, fire is often red or orange and water is mostly associated with the colour blue.

In the 1400’s Leonardo de Vinci was the first to suggest an alternative hierarchy of colour. He saw that although philosophers viewed white as the receiver of colours and black as the absence of colour, that both were essential colours with white representing light and black the darkness. The six colours he listed were in this order: white, yellow, green, blue, red and black, which you can also in Fig. 1.

More recent theorists such as Frank H Mahnke who is an architectural consultant for architectural projects has devoted his life to the study of colour to help designers create healthier built environments. He has written that human reaction depends on a multitude of factors, and that firstly we must consider that in choosing appropriate surface colours much depends on the specific hue, its value and intensity. He also reminds us that where colour is placed and how much of it, for what purpose and the length of time it will be in that place should all be taken into account. The world needs more people like this, to help guide students in the right direction and to help make the right healthier choices when designing for today’s environment.

Linda Holtzschue is a principal of a design firm based in New York City and writes that more changes have taken place in the way designers approach colour in the last few decades than have occurred in the last few centuries. This is mainly due to the shift in technology, colour is now a whole new world and at times a very confusing one. Her most recent book ‘Understanding Color’ is learning to see in the new way as well as the old.

I’m currently reading The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair who is an author, design and culture writer based in London. One of her opening pages writes that colour is fundamental to our experiences of the world around us, but how is that we see these things? Her explanation is clear and concise, she adds that what we are really seeing when we look at objects of colour is light being reflected off the surface and into our eyes. Different things are different colours because they absorb some wavelengths of the visible light spectrum while others bounce off. In this book she explains everything so simply which I find easy to understand without being bogged down by the science of it all! She then goes on to write about different colours, shades and the history and stories behind each one. When I consider colours now I pick up the book and read the chapter that applies to that particular colour, it’s an interesting fun read giving a different meaning to colour, adding character and depth to my thoughts on design and colour.


Fig. 1 – Aristotle’s Linear system of colour theory (accessed 25/7/22)

Fig. 2 – Aristotle’s colour theory drawing (accessed 25/7/22)

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