The Ostwald colour system, the Bauhaus and Winsor & Newton


The Winsor & Newton archives contain many historical objects, including a well-preserved Ostwald colour solid – a three-dimensional representation of the Ostwald colour system created by Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald.

Ostwald was a German chemist born in Latvia in 1853, who received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1909. Also a keen amateur painter, he used his knowledge of chemistry to study pigments and the stability of painting materials. After meeting the American painter Albert H Munsell and seeing his “colour atlas”, Ostwald pursued colour theory and was inspired to develop his own colour classification system.

According to Ostwald, there were three groups, or classes, of colours. The first consisted of neutral colours – those which do not contain colour and are made only from black and white. The second group were pure “full colours”, containing no black or white. The third group contained mixed colours – combinations of colours with black and/or white. Ostwald identified that all of these groups had at their core four basic hues: yellow, red, blue and sea green. Four further hues – when placed in between the core hues – created orange (between yellow and red), purple (between red and blue), turquoise (between blue and sea green), and leaf green (between sea green and yellow). Finally, two further hues between these colours created a circle of 24 evenly spaced colours.

Ostwald’s ideas about colour standards were enthusiastically received by De Stijl, the group of Dutch artists which included Piet Mondrian and were heavily invested in notions of geometry. De Stijl was a movement which went on to influence the Bauhaus, founded two years later in 1919, and which would become one of the foremost schools of architecture and design.

Like De Stijl, it encouraged a move away from an Expressionist aesthetic. Wassily Kandinsky taught colour theory at the Bauhaus, emphasising this move to pure geometrical simplicity; he believed that geometric forms were in correspondence to primary colours.

Bauhaus director Walter Gropius approached Ostwald with a view to him visiting the Bauhaus. In a letter to Ostwald on  November 20, 1926, Gropius says: “Enclosed you will find a small brochure describing how the teaching of form and colour is organised within our institute… On November 4th we are going to inaugurate our new institute building. I send you an invitation and I would be very pleased to meet you again.”

In 1926 and 1927, Ostwald delivered lectures in colour at the Bauhaus in Dessau, and Walter Gropius’ wife, Ise Gropius, recorded on June 12, 1927, that Ostwald was giving daily talks which were well received, with pupils praising his vitality. The manuscripts of the talks are still available in Ostwald’s written estate.

Combined with Johannes Itten’s colour theories – later developed by Josef Albers – Ostwald produced detailed colour systems that combined practical, philosophical and technical annotations on colour which formed the Bauhaus’ attitudes towards colour. He was invited to become a member of the its advisory board on 28th June 1927.

Although Gropius refers to Ostwald’s ideas in the Bauhaus catalogue exhibition of 1923, they received mixed reviews. Kandinsky was at first ambivalent before warming to his ideas, but Paul Klee, who also taught colour at the Bauhaus, was critical and dismissive of Ostwald’s application of scientific theories to colour.

Ostwald died in 1932, the year before the Bauhaus was closed by the Nazis, who considered it a centre for “degenerate art”. As artists fled Europe, they continued to disseminate the Bauhaus philosophy across the world. Many, including Josef and Anni Albers, and Mondrian, found refuge in America, where ideas about colour and materiality would become central to a new generation.

In 1930, Winsor & Newton’s scientific director, John Scott Taylor, translated Die Farbenfibel (The Colour Primer) into English. Winsor & Newton went on to publish Colour Practice in Schools by OJ Tonks in 1934, and to create the iconic Ostwald Watercolour Box and the Ostwald Standard Showcard Colours Box to support the system.

Ostwald’s colour harmony index was published in 1942 and consisted of 12 handbooks containing 680 colour chips and showing the full range of complementary hues. Modified editions were released, and its fourth edition was published in 1958 and sold until 1972, when it went out of print.

Hugely influential with a generation of artists, from Mondrian to Kandinsky, the Ostwald system has been replaced today by the more widely used Munsell colour system and the Swedish NCS (natural colour system). This is due to a combination of factors: Oswald’s system is complex to interpret, and it is laid out in a way that is hard to adapt and extend as new dyes and brighter pigments become available. However, Ostwald remains one of the key contributors to how we understand colour today and his vision and impact should not be underestimated.