SP.298 / ESG.SP298 Art of Color

Spring 2005

Photo of rainbow-colored fabric panels.A color wheel. ("Wheel of Colors" by iam4ranny on

Course Highlights

This course features a complete set of studio projects in the projects section.

Course Description

This seminar introduces, through studio projects, the basic principles regarding the use of color in the visual arts. Students explore a range of topics, including the historical uses of color in the arts, the interactions between colors, and the psychology of color.


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Course Description

This studio seminar first reviews the principles of visual design. It then launches into beginning studio projects that explore the basic principles of using of color in the visual arts. Projects include familiarization with colors, color and value balance, color as expression, color as impression, color squares, color as construction, warm-cold colors, and the interaction of colors. The course also examines the science of color; students study the physics, neuroscience, chemistry, and mathematics of color theory.

Each student works on one large final project dealing with "Interaction of Color," that often includes multi-media uses of color.


SES #Topics
1Interaction of Color
2Historical Use of Color in the Arts
3Visual Design and Unified Space
4Color Balance
5Color as Expression
6Color as Impression
7Searching for Tension: Color Squares
8Warm-Cold Colors
9Learning To Use Watercolors
10Composition and Painting
11-14Painting Studio
15Final Review

Required Art Materials

  • Box of Color-Aid Paper 6" x 9". The version with 220 colors is fine for this class.
  • Gray Values 9" x 12" package by Color Aid
  • 1 Pelikan Gouache 12 color set
  • 20" x 26" cardboard or redtag portfolio
  • 5 sheets of heavy weight white coverstock 20" x 26" (or 2-ply bristol)
  • 24" metal ruler
  • 30-60-90 triangle
  • Heavy-duty retractable utility knife, along with extra blades.
  • Post-it Glue Stick
  • Rubber cement and rubber cement pick-up
  • Masking tape, 1"
  • Pencils and erasers
  • 20" x 26" cutting surface: 1/8" chipboard or back of old sketchpad


Amazon logo Itten, Johannes. The Art of Color. Translated by Ernst van Haagen. Wiley; Revised edition, 1997. ISBN: 9780471289289.

Grading Policy

Nine Class Projects (5% each)45%
Mid-Term Project20%
Final Project20%
Class Participation15%


Students will complete a number of projects in this course, both during class and on their own time. As a final project, each student will be asked to work on one large color project that may include multi-media use of color. A goal of this seminar is to provide students with an opportunity to express their artistic and creative sensibilities.

1Interaction of ColorFamiliarization with ColorsOrganize the entire color-aid pack according to the value of the color progressing from the lightest colors to the darkest colors.
2Historical Use of Color in the ArtsFully Saturated Color Squares

Color Values

Color Wheel
Fully Saturated Color Squares

Cut a 4-1/2" x 4-1/2" gray square. Cut a 3" x 3" white square (paper) and center it on the gray. Then cut a 1" x 1" red square and center that on the white paper. Repeat this but replace the white paper with black paper. Mount both pieces side by side on a 13" x 14" white coverstock. Now repeat this using a blue square and then a yellow square instead of the red square. You will have six projects mounted on three sheets.

Color Values

The second exercise involves placing the same color square on three different color grounds. The grounds are chosen to have the same value, a darker value, and a lighter value as the color square. The color square should be 1" x 1" and the grounds 3" x 3". Center the square on the ground and mount all three projects side by side by side on a 13" x 14" white coverstock.

Color Wheel

Make a color wheel using the fully saturated colors in your color-aid pack. Cut out the sizes using the color wheel template handed out in class. The wheel should be mounted on 11"x12" white coverstock paper.
Color Wheel (JPG)
3Visual Design and Unified SpaceLetters: Color Transparency and Unified SpaceUse 3 letters, each of a different primary color, to organize a figure-ground composition on 12" x 12" coverstock paper. The letters should overlap each other. One design goal is to activate the entire space, both figure and ground. A second design goal is to construct a contained space and a containing space. Concentrate on creating shape by applying shape. Pay attention to the scale. The third design goal is to use the overlapping areas of the letters to create the illusion of additive or subtractive colors by replacing the letter color with the appropriate color formed by the combining the colors of the overlapping areas. Whenever there is an overlapping space select a secondary color which corresponds to the correct mix of the primary colors. Carefully choose the value of the secondary color to give a sense of a three dimensional weave of the two letters.Letters: Color Transparency and Unified Space (JPG)
4Color BalanceColor BalanceMake a series of color balances on 12" x 12" coverstock paper using:

- Five grays, 3" high of varying widths.
- Four grays and one color.
- Three grays and two colors.
- Two grays and three colors.
- One gray and four colors.
- Five colors.

All gray and color selections are 4-1/2" high and the widths will vary according to the need to balance the color values. Each project should involve different choices of grays and colors. Do not juxtapose monochromatic colors.
Color Balance (JPG)
5Color as ExpressionColor as ExpressionIn this project you will try to render internal emotional states and external physical concepts in color. These concepts are points of departure for your expression. It is sometimes possible to give expression to these states with as little as two or three colors. You may also choose to use as many as ten colors. The project involves the juxtaposition of colors one next to another. The idea is to use pure color and minimal form so we juxtapose the colors either horizontally or vertically. It may happen that your expression requires slanted use of color but remember we are not try to create representational forms for our ideas. This is a creative project where quantity and quality of color play a significant role related to your memory of color and the symbolic meaning of color. Keep in mind that we are always concerned with creating unified space. Thus you should incorporate the ideas of color balance into the project.

You should select 3 physical concepts and 3 abstract concepts from this list of 20 physical concepts and 20 abstract concepts. You should use the full Color Aid paper. However the ultimate horizontal or vertical size of the project will depend on your choice of colors.

Some abstract concepts include: anxiety, innocence, sadness, hope, silence, fear, rebellion, tragedy, gentleness, apathy, joy, religious transport, confinement, strength, violence, festivity, celebration, solitude, and nightmare.

Some physical concepts include: height, tempest, spring, summer, fall, winter, twilight, ocean, dawn, desert, woods, murmur, marsh, flight, earth, night, heat, rain, dream.
6Color as ImpressionColor ImpressionChoose one season; spring, summer, fall or winter. Select one hundred different colors which give the impression of that season. Cut from each color a 1 1/2 " x 1 1/2 " square. You may need more colors later on so if you selected 120 different colors you will find it easier to assemble the project.Color as Impression (JPG)
7Searching for Tension: Color SquaresColor Balance and TensionConstruct two 8" x 8" squares which consists of ten smaller squares: 3 squares are 4" x 4"; 3 squares are 2" x 2"; and 4 squares are 1" x 1". The first square is constructed from 10 distinct gray values. Each square should be distinct yet all the squares must form a balanced unified space. The second square is constructed from 10 distinct color values Mount the project on 11"x12" white coverstock.Color Balance and Tension (JPG)
8Warm-Cold ColorsWarm and Cold ColorsChoose a 100 different warm colors, and cold colors, and colors in between to render the passage from warm to cold or vice versa. Then juxtapose the 100 different colors in a square. The emotional content of the warm-cold relation is explored.Warm and Cold Colors (JPG)

A Color Square (JPG) (Courtesy of Thuy-Tien Le. Used with permission.)
MidtermMidterm ProjectCollect color images in the following six categories:

- Paintings
- Food
- Unusual Images
- Flowers
- Textiles
- Human Interactions.

These images should stress the interaction of color. Avoid single color images or monochromatic images. Choose five images from each category. Mount those images on 14" x 13" coverstock.
FinalWatercolor PaintingsCut matteboard and mount paintings.A Watercolor Painting by Dugan Hayes(JPG) (Courtesy of Dugan Hayes. Used with permission.)

A Watercolor Painting by Jess Sundberg (JPG) (Courtesy of Jess Sundberg. Used with permission.)

A Watercolor Painting by George Lin (JPG) (Courtesy of George Lin. Used with permission.)

A Watercolor Painting by Prof. Peter Dourmashkin (JPG)


Amazon logo When you click the Amazon logo to the left of any citation and purchase the book (or other media) from, MIT OpenCourseWare will receive up to 10% of this purchase and any other purchases you make during that visit. This will not increase the cost of your purchase. Links provided are to the US Amazon site, but you can also support OCW through Amazon sites in other regions. Learn more.


Amazon logo Itten, Johannes. The Art of Color. Translated by Ernst van Haagen. Wiley; Revised edition, 1997. ISBN: 9780471289289.

References (Class Inspection)

Amazon logo Nordland, Gerald. Richard Diebenkorn. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2001. ISBN: 9780847823482.

Amazon logo Adriani, Götz. Cezanne Paintings. Translated by Russell Stockman. New York, NY: Harry N Abrams, 1995. ISBN: 9780810940260.

Haftmann, Werner. Emil Nolde. Translated by Norbert Guterman. Koln, Germany: M. DuMont, Schauberg, 1958.

Amazon logo Cowart, Jack. Henri Matisse: The Early Years in Nice, 1916-1930. New York, NY: H.N. Abrams, 1986. ISBN: 9780894680977.

Amazon logo Alviani, Getulio, Nicholas Fox Weber, and Friedrich W. Heckmanns, eds. Josef Albers. Milano, Italy: L'Arcaedizioni, 1988. ISBN: 8878380016.

Amazon logo Hobbs, Robert Carleton. Milton Avery. Introduction by Hilton Kramer. New York, NY: Hudson Hills Press, 2007. ISBN: 9780933920958.

Matisse, Henri. The Last Works of Henri Matisse, 1950-1954. Texts by Pierre Reverdy and Georges Duthuit. Paris, Verve, 1958.

Amazon logo Tanaka, Ikko, Kazuko Koike, and Mitsukuni Yoshida, eds. Japan Color. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books, 1983. ISBN: 9780877013051.

Klee, Paul. Notebooks. Edited by Jurg Spiller. Translated by Ralph Manheim and Heinz Norden. Vol. 1: The Thinking Eye, and Vol. 2: The Nature of Nature. Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1992. ISBN: 0879514663.



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