The original version of this article appeared in a special issue of Art Journal, Rethinking Studio Art Education, Spring 1999, Vol. 58, No. 1.

The notion of teaching color as a series of formal and physiological experiments in perception is deeply embedded in the American university and art school curriculum. Current styles of teaching color first emerged at a time when new technologies were drastically increasing the availability of synthetic pigments in pure, high chroma hues and when artists were eschewing such extra-visual matters as narrative and iconography in favor of abstraction and formal issues. Most contemporary color curricula are still structured on the tacit assumption that the ways of discussing and working with color that emerged out of modern Western culture are universally applicable and intelligible.


Virtually all Western color curricula teach that the field of color is best understood by reference to a fixed set of descriptive qualities that can be summarized by a chart: a hue circle, a value scale, a chroma scale. In comprehensive color systems, such as Wilhelm Ostwald’s in The Color Primer, these individual charts are then combined into a multi-dimensional chart so that the student is presented with a three-dimensional model, a color solid, which is said to summarize all the possible variations of colors. The nuances of color created by media, surface, and material are rarely considered.

Color, decontextualized and stripped of material and historical associations, becomes the unquestioned subject of such a study. Natural science, not social science or aesthetics, is the paradigm for examination and exploration.

In a typical paint-based color class, students are given the task of creating a 12-hue color wheel (hue circle) and a number of charts showing value and chroma. The emphasis is on using imperfect pigment to achieve the theoretically predictable results of such experiments as “use three primaries to generate a complete range of possible hues” or “mix two complements to form a mid value gray.” These experiments inevitably lead to murky violets, dull greens, and indeterminable neutrals. Instead of savoring the multitude of subtle shades created, the students struggle to get the “right” answer, while the instructor is forced to explain again and again, “If the pigments in these paints were perfectly balanced, you would get the ‘correct’ results.”

Using colored papers, the exercises in a Josef Albers’ style color class are more successful in demonstrating predictable and repeatable results. For example, when students memorize pairs of complementary colors, this information is reinforced by the visual phenomenon of the “after image” or of “simultaneous contrast.” Theoretical formulations such as “When placed side by side, complements enhance each other’s brightness” are tested and affirmed by the students’ own perceptions.

Grounding the knowledge of color in these scientific terms appears to validate the knowledge being transmitted and reinforces the idea that all of the information being conveyed is objectively true.

Ascribing a scientific basis to our understanding of color becomes problematic as teaching moves from such perceptual formulations as “Cool colors tend to visually recede” to psychological, social observations such as “Cool colors create a mood of sadness.”

The Western modern tradition of teaching color, with its scientific emphasis on verifiable experiments and its aesthetic emphasis on formalism, can no longer be taught as an unproblematic, universal approach to understanding color. I am not suggesting that we cease using the time-tested color exercises of a modernist curriculum. I am suggesting that we contextualize current color exercises in the history of modern art and culture and reexamine the values that are supported or diminished by the curriculum’s underlying assumptions and structural metaphors.

In Postmodern Art Education: An Approach to Curriculum, Efland, Freedman, and Stuhr suggest that art curricula make use of the concept of “double coding.” Double coding in postmodern discourse is the recognition that many contemporary works are deliberate hybrids of various cultural traditions.

Rather than attempting to “smooth out” different systems of representation and interpretation into a harmonious whole, double coded works create meaning out of the dialectic generated by juxtaposition and the resulting cognitive tension.

I will discuss several ways in which professors at the University of Illinois Chicago use multiply coded color curriculum to increase the students’ sophistication when using color as they are introduced to other important themes of contemporary art and culture.


The student frustrated by the fact that actual paint mixing does not necessarily match theoretical predictions is not duped by incorrect theory, but is struggling with the inevitable gap between the complexity of the visual world and the limitations of the systems we use to describe it.

In the color curriculum taught in the UIC Art Education program, students are initially taught the system presented in Johannes Itten’s The Art of Color. After studying and painting hue, value, and chroma scales, students study Itten’s color sphere. Upon learning how this model structures color perceptions, students study another way of arranging the same information on a three-dimensional chart, the Munsell System’s “color tree.” Students discuss which features of visual reality are best explained by each model.

Students note how in the Itten model the fully saturated pure hues can be easily located around the equator of the sphere; however, cross-hue value comparisons are less clear because pure hues come in a wide range of value levels. In the Munsell model, a basic hue circle cannot easily be seen because colors are located vertically at their correct value level, hence a saturated violet will be low on the value scale; a saturated yellow will be at a high level. Through these types of comparisons, the students learn to compare their actual perceptions to the structuring of perceptions through various systems.

Students presented with the historical fact that the Munsell Color Tree has “grown” over the years are asked, “How could a system of representation grow?” This challenges them to think about how knowledge is constructed and presented. After being shown a high chroma blue, which was added to the chart in recent years, students discover how the tree grows--there are colors such as the electric blue of a butterfly wing which people have long been able to see, but which could not be represented in the model because there was no equivalent pigment. The synthesizing of new pigments made possible the representation and charting of a visual phenomena.

Students are introduced to an important postmodern principle--knowledge is constructed within systems of representation and no system is adequate to represent the complexity of reality.

Students (and significantly, future teachers) learn the importance of using language and systems that do not claim to totally explain complex phenomena. They learn to continue to seek to see “the thing itself” and not its depiction within a single representational system.


In the West, most students have had childhood experiences of painting with brightly colored tempera paints. Red, blue, and yellow are seen as the “natural” choices of young children. This supports modernist narratives about fundamental forms and joyous primitiveness.

What is hidden in these modernist narratives are the complex, industrial processes necessary to produce the synthetic pigments that make possible the wide dissemination of cheap, brightly colored paints.

Students are introduced to color pigments, not as the stuff of earth and alchemy, but as abstracted substances, disconnected from physical reality and historical contingency.

Through books such as the Gamblin Color Book, students understand the interconnectedness of technical, economic, and cultural information. Subtle shifts of meaning occur when students see an earth tone as “Terra di Siena” or recognize the devotional or status implications of the use of brilliant blues before the 1824 discovery of the bright, inexpensive Ultramarine Blue.

Marta Huzar’s UIC Color Theory course begins as a traditional Albers’ style colored paper-based class. Later the class studies and manipulates color on the computer using Photoshop. Some of the work at this point involves using various programs to manipulate “found” colors from photographic imagery. Color is thus re-embodied in specific images and associations. The class moves from insights gained in a domain of flattened, static affect to ones enlivened by the particularity of references. The computer provides hitherto fore unimagined ease in transforming color and presents unforeseen difficulty in conceiving the translations between color as light on the computer screen and color as pigment created by various output devices such a laser or inkjet printers.

click here to go to page 2 of COLOR CODING

Organizing colors in a hue circle sets the tone for the “scientific” study of color.
In an Albers-based color study course, students are given problems to solve such as creating the illusion of transparence with opaque papers.
In typical painted color studies students are asked to laboriously neatly fill in the lines—a skill of questionable value in an age when a hard edge color design would most likely be created on a computer. Better to emulate the color squares of Paul Klee and allow students to concentrate on the pleasure and nuances of colormixing.
A spherical color solid uses the pure hue circle as the equator and fills in colors at various values to fit the form.
In the Munsell color “tree,” the position of each color corresponds to its correct placement in relationship to a central value and chroma scale. Comparing various color solids foregrounds for students the way in which structures for explaining phenomena effect the way in which they are understood.
(click image to enlarge)