Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967) Swiss designer colour theorist

Johannes Itten. The chromatic circle, some exercises on the contrast of pure colors.
Johannes Itten. The chromatic circle, some exercises on the contrast of pure colors.

Johannes Itten (1888–1967), a Swiss expressionist painter, designer, teacher, writer, and theorist, was a Bauhaus (Staatliches Bauhaus) school member. Itten was a founding member of the Weimar Bauhaus, along with German-American painter Lyonel Feininger and German sculptor Gerhard Marcks, under the guidance of German architect Walter Gropius.

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He was born in the Swiss town of Südern-Linden. He studied to be an elementary school teacher from 1904 to 1908. Beginning in 1908, he taught utilising methods devised by Friedrich Fröbel, the founder of the kindergarten concept, and was introduced to psychoanalytic theories.

Cerchi by Johannes Itten

Play becomes joy, joy becomes work, work becomes play

— Johannes Itten

In 1909, he studied at Geneva’s École des Beaux-Arts but was underwhelmed by the instructors and returned to Bern. Itten’s training with Ernst Schneider at the Bern-Hofwil Teachers’ Academy paved the way for his later work as a master at the Bauhaus. Itten accepted Schneider’s beliefs, such as not editing his students’ creative work individually for fear of suffocating the creative impulse. Instead, he corrected a few typical errors for the entire class. In 1912, he returned to Geneva to study with abstract painter Eugène Gilliard.


Life and Work

Adolf Hölzel and Franz Ciek had a significant influence on him. Itten established a private art school in Vienna based on Eugène Gilliard’s work and textbook. Itten adapted Hölzel’s use of basic shapes (the line, the plane, the circle, and the spiral) as a starting point for creating and using gymnastic exercises to relax and prepare his students for the experiences in the class.

A visitor looks at the sculpture "Tower of Fire" by Johannes Itten at the "modell bauhaus" exhibition on the first day of its opening to the public
A visitor looks at the sculpture “Tower of Fire” by Johannes Itten at the “modell bauhaus” exhibition on the first day of its opening to the public


Itten lectured at the Bauhaus from 1919 to 1922. He created the groundbreaking “preliminary course,” which taught pupils the fundamentals of material qualities, composition, and colour. “Itten designed exercises to teach the seven forms of colour contrast, he theorised. His colour contrasts include hue contrast, value contrast, temperature contrast, complements contrast (neutralisation), simultaneous contrast (from Chevreuil), saturation contrast (mixtures with grey), and extension contrast (from Goethe).”

In 1919, he requested Gertrud Grunow to give a course at the Bauhaus on the “theory of harmony.” This included music and relaxation techniques to boost the kids’ creativity.

Paul Klee and Georg Muche were asked to join Itten at the Bauhaus in 1920. He wrote The Art of Color, which outlines his theories as an extension of Adolf Hölzel’s colour wheel. Itten’s “colour sphere” grew to contain 12 hues.

With Bauhaus weaver Gunta Stölzl, Itten founded the Ontos Weaving Workshops near Zurich in 1924.



Itten was a devotee of Mazdaznan, a fire cult based on Zoroastrianism that originated in the United States. He followed a strict vegetarian diet and meditated to develop inner awareness and intuition, which he used as his primary source of artistic inspiration and practice. Itten’s mysticism and the adoration held by a group of pupils, some of whom converted to Mazdaznan (e.g. Georg Muche), caused friction with Walter Gropius. The latter sought to drive the school towards mass output rather than individual artistic expression. Because of the schism, Itten resigned from the Bauhaus in 1923 and was quickly replaced by László Moholy-Nagy. He ran a small art and architecture school in Berlin from 1926 to 1934. Ernst Neufert, Walter Gropius’s former chief architect at the Bauhaus, lectured from 1932 to 1934.

Itten’s works exploring the use and composition of colour resemble the square op art canvases of artists such as Josef Albers, Max Bill and Bridget Riley and the expressionist works of Wassily Kandinsky.

  • 1926–1934 Private art school in Berlin
  • 1932–1938 Director of the Textilfachschule in Krefeld
  • 1938–1954 Director at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich
  • 1943–1960 Director of the Textilfachschule in Zürich
  • 1949–1956 Director of the Museum Rietberg, Zürich, a museum for non-European art
  • 1955 works as a freelance painter
  • 1955 colour courses at the HfG Ulm (Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm)


Itten’s colour study is also credited with inspiring seasonal colour analysis. Itten was the first to link colour palettes to four distinct personality types, which he labelled with the names of the seasons. His research on colour palettes and colour interaction affected the Op Art movement and other colour abstraction movements. After publishing the Color Me A Season shortly after his death, his classifications gained prominence in the cosmetics sector. Seasonal colour analysis is still used by cosmetologists today as a nod to Itten’s pioneering work.

Christopher Nolan’s 2012 superhero film The Dark Knight Rises features multiple parallels to Itten’s work, and Nolan credits him as a significant artistic inspiration. “I’ll call it in [Itten],” says Nolan in The Dark Knight Rises, the most obvious of his many tributes to him. In a later interview, Nolan acknowledged that he had explicitly asked Aidan Gillen to deliver the words in a hazy manner.


Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Föhl Thomas, & Siebenbrodt, M. (2006). Bauhaus-Museum Weimar. Dt. Kunstverl.

Itten, J. (1975). Design and Form: The Basic Course at the Bauhaus and Later. United Kingdom: Wiley.

Itten, J. (1986). The Color Star. Switzerland: Wiley.

Itten, J. (1970). The Elements of Color. Germany: Wiley.

Roters, E. (1969). Painters of the Bauhaus. Zwemmer.

Wagner, C. (2019). Johannes Itten – Catalogue Raisonné. Germany: Hirmer Verlag GmbH.

Wick, R. K., & Grawe, G. D. (2000). Teaching at the Bauhaus. Hatje Cantz.

Wikipedia contributors. (2021, September 13). Johannes Itten. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 21:26, September 19, 2021, from

Yee, L., Desorgues, J., Ince, C. (2012). Bauhaus: Art as Life. Germany: Koenig Books.

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