After five lessons from Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook, our blogs editor arrives at the chapter on colour theory. Curator Matthew Gale is here to help... 

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  • Page 57 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook
    Page 57 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook
  • Page 61 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook
    Page 61 of Paul Klee's 1953 Pedgogical Sketchbook
  • Paul Klee, 'Comedy' 1921
    Paul Klee
    Comedy 1921
    Watercolour and oil on paper
    support: 305 x 454 mm
    Purchased 1946© DACS, 2002

Matthew, in our final lesson, I think we’re finally arriving at colour theory… I think there’s a lot to learn here

Ah yes, well on p.57 Klee talks about ‘too much tiresome white’ doesn’t he? In a way, he’s going back to that very early concern that he had in his earlier writings around being a draftsman and mark making on the white piece of paper.

So, with the black arrow, is he introducing how colour can factor into that equation of weight and movement in a composition?

Yes – and that comes back to how the complementary colours have different impact, and that where red and green balance, violet and yellow are the most extremely different.

Oh hang on, how do we know that?

Well, there are a number of different versions of the colour wheel, Goethe’s being one of them, but essentially those complimentaries have been fairly consistent. They all derive from an awareness of how our eyes work physiologically in relation to light, for example, knowing that when you look at a white surface, put a yellow thing there, stare at it, and when you take it away your eye compensates by seeing purple.

[Stares at a light, turns head rapidly, feels dizzy, tries to compose self]

Although, the way light works and the way that paints work is a different thing; this is what Newton found, that when all colours are brought together in light you get white, when all colours are brought together in paint you get black. So, painting is always an inadequate way of trying to match what we see in the world, which is part of a long struggle leading back into the 19th century. I mean, that’s why impressionism is such an extraordinary thing – that’s what they’re setting out to do, and indeed what the pre-Raphaelites were doing simultaneously, trying to capture the impact of light through this material thing.

Wow. I feel like that’s a fundamental understanding I’ve never grasped before.

Well, this is what he’s explaining to his students. One of the things that we’ve got on the wall in room six are washes from one end of a piece of paper to another, green at one end and red at the other, and then you add a layer of each until you get to red/green in the centre. This is an exercise that shows you what happens across the colour wheel.

I love the incredibly abstract quotes that he throws in around his diagrams, too.

Ah yes, it works brilliantly, doesn’t it? On the last page: ‘We’ve arrived at the spectral colour circle where all the arrows are superfluous, because the question is no longer to move there but to be everywhere, and consequently also there!’ That’s very, very good – let’s all go and have a sit down.

But what on earth does he mean?

It just feels as though he’s trying to say that it’s no longer about specificity, that it’s about a wider harmony perhaps. But there could be another reading of it, of course.

So, we’ve finished the book! How did I do, Matthew?

Well, fine…

But do you think I’ve come anywhere close to understanding what the book is about?

I’m not sure that Klee would have wanted you to think that there are wrong sorts of ways to understand it.

For goodness sake…

No really, I think that’s actually why it has lasted so long – that it’s still in print for goodness sake. That is the cold, commercial measure isn’t it? There’s not a certificate at the end for reading the book, it’s more, ‘okay I’ve understood in that way’ – like a good novel you might go back to and re-read and think, now I can see another nuance to it.


You didn’t think you were setting out on this journey did you?

I really didn’t.

But it would be dull if it was literal wouldn’t it? I mean, there are text books on how to draw perspective or how to mix colour, and you refer to them for, you know, how to draw lamp in perspective, and you never read it again. Whereas, this is opening up a world.

Yeah, a world, a can of worms, whatever… Thanks for the lessons, Matthew.

LESSON ONE: Learn the rules! Understanding the nature of mark-making is the key to creating a good composition
LESSON TWO: Break the rules. Understanding the potential structure of form allows you to disrupt it
LESSON THREE: Look to nature. The relationships in nature can help us understand the way our elements work in art
LESSON FOUR: Know your viewpoint. Perspective is about your position in relation to the world, and once you know it, you can mess with it
LESSON FIVE: Like architecture, a painting must be structurally balanced
LESSON SIX: Paint is the opposite of light. Learn the colour wheel for the best chance at mastering it

Want to know more about Bauhaus? Matthew Gale sums up the basics in our final post