color swatches on a wooden table

What is Color Theory and Why Does It Matter? From Alberti to Albers

What do Leone Battista Alberti, Leonardo Da Vinci, Issac Newton, and Josef Albers have in common? Color theory. Each of the creatives mentioned above studied the properties of color. And although they each had different approaches, they all strove to understand how our environment interacts with our visual perceptions. So, what is color theory?

Color theory outlines the basic principles of color and how they interact with each other. From color combinations to color interactions and perceptions, color theory guides the aesthetics of beauty. Artists spend their whole lives studying color theory and the different elements of art within it. Here are a few of the artists who wrote the book on it.

Leone Battista Alberti

Alberti was an Italian renaissance humanist author, artist, architect, poet and cryptographer. The actual embodiment of the renaissance man. Alberti was the first artist to outline color theory in an outward way. He stated that “Through the mixing of colors infinite other hues are born, but there are only four true colors from which more and more other kinds of colors may be thus created. Red is the color of fire, blue of the air, green of the water, and grey of the earth… white and black are not true colors but are alterations of other colors.” 

Josef Albers

In 1971, Josef Albers created his seminal work “Interaction of Color.” The Yale University Press issued a pocket edition and, in 2013, even made an app based on it. With all his work on color theory and interaction, Albers also shone a light on the way perception plays into color by stating, “If one says ‘Red’ – the name of color – and there are fifty people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.”

Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo studied color interactions. He was the first to use value consistently across his figures.

Historical side note – Da Vinci translates to “of Vinci”, a town in the Italian region of Tuscany. So when you say Da Vinci you’re actually just stating a place, not Leonardo’s last name.

Issac Newton

In the 1660s, the late physicist and mathematician enacted a series of experiments with light and a prism. Newton found that clear white light was composed of seven colors. Or, as we now know it, ROYGBIV. Newton proved Alberti’s opposition to Aristotle’s musings that all colors came from black and white and related them to nature’s elements.


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