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 (shown above).

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, eventually compiling and publishing his theories in Die Farbenfibel (The Colour Primer) in 1916.

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.

Bauhaus Dessau, Germany
Bauhaus Dessau, Germany

In 1926, Bauhaus director Walter Gropius approached Ostwald with an invitation for him to visit the Bauhaus. As a result, in the following two years Ostwald delivered lectures in colour which were enthusiastically received by the pupils; manuscripts of the talks are still available in Ostwald’s written estate. His practical, philosophical and technical annotations on colour would be a major influence on the Bauhaus

How does Winsor & Newton come into the picture?

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 Bauhaus philosophy across the world; many found refuge in America where their ideas about colour and materiality would become central to a new generation and a whole new audience of American artists who were already intrigued by stories of the legendary Bauhaus.

Untitled design
Ostwald school book cover and circle colour box from the Winsor & Newton archive

In 1930, Winsor & Newton’s scientific director, John Scott Taylor, translated Die Farbenfibel (The Colour Primer) into English, thus playing a crucial role in ensuring that Ostwald’s work in colour reached a wider world. It was natural for Winsor & Newton to be interested in and want to share Ostwald’s theories, especially as this was during a time when Winsor & Newton was also publishing learning materials for artists regularly. Winsor & Newton went on to also publish Colour Practice in Schools by OJ Tonks in 1934. Tonks was a teacher at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. In addition to translations and publications, Winsor & Newton created the iconic Ostwald Watercolour Box and the Ostwald Standard Showcard Colours Box to support the system.

As his theories gained prominence, Ostwald’s colour harmony index was published in 1942, this consisted of 12 handbooks containing 680 colour chips which showed 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.