The Function of Colour: An Introduction to Colour Theory and a Definition of Terms


  • Axel Buether University of Wuppertal



As a phenomenon, colour shapes how people experience the environment visually, while as a medium, it conveys meaning, emotional moods and functional information. As luminous colour it appears atmospheric and diffuse to the viewer, while as non-luminous colour, shape and form materialise from it. The antithesis of coloured light is darkness, which shows its influence on the aesthetics and function of the phenomenal world in the spatial play of shadows. The complex sensations of colour result from the interaction of light with the entire organism. Colour and light form two sides of the same phenomenon, since colour illuminates and light colours.

Colours shape the appearance of the natural environment, which varies in terms of climate and topography. They make it possible for diverse forms of life to orient themselves and to communicate in ways specific to their species. Colour creates identity. These biological functions do not only shape the natural environment – they also determine the aesthetics of the cultural space, which illustrates the forms of visual communication between people. Colour’s potential for expression and communication evolves with the cultural development of individuals and societies. It finds expression in all manifestations of life, in words, pictures, objects, spaces and performances. Colour is the most important design tool for configuring the environment aesthetically, as the abstract lineal structures of the planning phase take on a physical form in the atmospheric and material manifestations of built space.






Colour in Interdisciplinary Context