Professor Releases New Theory of Colours

– Goethe was wrong in believing that certain colours produce specific emotions, says artist Henriette Heise, who has devised a new theory of colour.

Henriette Heise’s A Theory of Colours of 2017. Illustration made using chalkboard paint and chroma key paint on watercolour paper.

Inside the small exhibition venue Hejserummet, nestling among a series of artist studios in a Copenhagen backyard, you can currently see a mural made from the primary colours of a new theory of colours. The work and the entire theory of colours are both the work of Henriette Heise, an artist and professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts. Her A Theory of Colours of 2017 is a circular shape divided into eight sections, clearly reminiscent of the colour wheels created by Isaac Newton in 1672 and Johann Wolfgang Goethe in 1793. But unlike those historic versions, Heise’s colour wheel is based exclusively on a spectrum of cool colours in hues of blue and green.

For the exhibition A Theory of Colours of 2017, explained Heise painted so-called lens flares (the geometric figures inadvertently created when light hits a camera lens) onto the wall using blended colours – notes of petroleum green and greyish blue, which are very poetically described in the brief press release as “less self-assured in their function than the primary colours.” So whereas the colour theories of the past were intended as tools to further our understanding of the world, it would seem that Heise’s theory of colours is more interested in opening up the realms of the unexplained, giving us a less definable palette with which to paint our contemporary era. 

How did you arrive at the colours featured in your take on a colour theory for our present day?

The primary colours in my colour theory are what I call technical colours – a term I use because the colours serve a specific function. There are two Chroma Key colours, one blue and one green, and two chalkboard paints, one black and one dark green. The Chroma Key colours are radically open to everything in the sense that they can be used as background colours which can be digitally replaced by anything. Chalkboard paint is used for school blackboards, which are mostly utilised to convey what is currently accepted as approved knowledge.

Speaking of blackboards and your own capacity as professor, might your colour theory be seen as a reflection on the teachers role and function today?  

Yes, very much so, but also as a reflection on how we learn and obtain knowledge in general. My function as a teacher is to listen as much as it is to speak, and I believe that questioning the hierarchies of knowledge is crucial if we are to have the least hope of building a more gentle world.

Goethes colour theory lets the senses take centre stage by making the human eye a co-creator of the colours we look at. How does your colour theory relate to this?

One of the main things I notice about Goethe is that he was wrong in thinking that certain colours represented or produced specific emotions. But on the other hand he introduced the idea of a connection between colours and emotions; an idea that paved the way for new perspectives. When I try to devise a theory of colours today I am also seeking to contemplate our relationship with emotions as something that can be explained, instrumentalised and tamed. My theory of colours is a mixture of a depressive dystopia and a faint glimmer of hope insofar as I want to be mistaken just like Goethe was – in the sense that colours and emotions cannot be reduced to something purely technical.

Why do we need a new theory of colours?

I don’t yet know what others can use this theory of colours for. But I know that I myself need it to contemplate the times of transition in which we live. The theory of colours arises out of a strong sense that something needs to be reformulated. The colour wheel and mural at Hejserummet may be the most accurate answer I can give to that question right now.

Henriette Heise’s current exhibition at Hejserummet, A Theory of Colours of 2017, explained is based on the palette defined in the artist’s new theory of colours, Copenhagen 2017.