Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

2016 Edition
| Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_248


Polychromy refers to the combination of many colors in a visual scene, whether it is a natural landscape or a man-made arrangement of things, for instance, a piece of art, a design, an object, a building, an urban landscape, etc. The word is formed by the Greek words poly (many) and chroma (color).


Colors can be divided into two separate classes: chromatic colors (such as red, green, blue, yellow, and any other tone), and achromatic colors (such as white, black, and grays). The characteristic of chromatic colors is that they have a definite hue, in addition to a certain saturation and lightness. Achromatic colors do not have a definite hue, and their saturation has a zero value; they are only distinguished by their lightness. When many chromatic colors of different hue appear together, this is called a polychromatic composition. If a composition uses colors of different saturation and lightness but of the same hue (for instance, different kinds of yellow that could be lighter or darker and more or less saturated), then this arrangement is said to be a monochromatic color composition or a monochrome arrangement (mono: one; chroma: color). If a composition uses only gray colors of different lightness (which may also include black and white), it is called an achromatic composition.

While it may seem from the Greek etymology that the words color and chroma are equivalent, modern conceptions make a distinction between them. Color refers to a visual sensation in general, which includes not only the categories of red, green, blue, yellow, etc. but also gray, black, and white. The term hue is used more specifically to name the quality of a chromatic color that makes yellow look different to red, red to green, green to blue, etc. In opposition, gray colors, black, and white have no hue. In modern usage, chroma is considered a synonym of saturation, i.e., the strength, the colorfulness, or the degree of purity of a certain hue. As previously said, gray colors, black, and white have no chroma (saturation), or have chroma zero. However, in order to avoid confusion with the original Greek etymological meaning (chroma = color), the term saturation is recommended, rather than chroma. The concept of chromaticity includes the two parameters: hue (dominant wavelength) and saturation (purity), such as in the CIE system of 1931 (also called chromaticity diagram). That is to say, hue and saturation define the chromaticity of a color, independently of its lightness.

Then, it has to be taken into account that the word color is often used with two different semantic extensions: with a narrow sense, meaning “chromatic color,” and with a wide sense, including also grays, white, and black as color sensations. The narrow meaning is evident when some people say that black is not a color (because it is considered “the absence of color”), white is not a color (because it is “the sum of all colors”), and grays are not colors either. From a more comprehensive point of view, and in modern usage, this is a misconception.

All the previous clarifications are important in order to understand that polychromy means not just “many colors” but many chromatic colors of different hue. Polychrome compositions may include, of course, achromatic colors, but their presence must be accompanied by chromatic colors of different hue in order to be truly polychromatic.

Polychromy in Color Harmony

From the quantity of hues that take part in a color composition or arrangement, Antal Nemcsics states five types of harmonies ([1], pp. 274–280):
  • Monochrome harmonies, with colors taken from the same hue section in a color order system

  • Dichrome harmonies, with colors taken from two sections of hue, preferably complementary hues

  • Trichrome harmonies, with colors taken from three different hues, which may be evenly spaced in the whole chromatic circle or grouped forming a domain in one sector of it

  • Tetrachrome harmonies, with colors taken according to regular series from four hue triangles, which may be in four well-separated domains in the chromatic circle, in only one domain, in a group of three hues in one domain against one hue opposite to them, or in two complementary pairs

  • Polychrome harmonies, with colors belonging to more that four different hues, preferably making groups of hues in definite domains

Polychromatic Compositions Along History

The use of polychromy in the visual arts, decoration, and architecture has a long history. The small book by Thomas Goodwin reviews some of the earlier examples and concentrates mainly around the Middle Ages and the religious architecture in England [2]. Goodwin starts the introduction with a definition and then refers to the practice of polychromy in Egypt, Persia, and other antique civilizations:

The art of decorating the interiors of buildings with colour and gilding —Polychromy, as it is sometimes called,— is one which has been practised in all ages and among all nations. Its universal use among all people, as well barbarous as refined, is a satisfactory proof that it is founded upon the best and most natural principles. ([2], p. 1)

The Greeks painted their temples and family dwellings with many vivid colors of different hue, such as red, yellow, and blue. The idea that Greek temples had just the appearance given by white marble has been superseded long time ago, even when for some people it is still a novelty. Greeks started making wooden temples, and of course they painted them not only for decorative reasons but also to protect the wood. This usage created a style, and centuries later in the Greek culture and artistic practice, when the wood was replaced by marble for building temples, the custom of using colors applied by paints remained. And then, Greeks painted over the marble, producing a polychromatic architecture. The painted colors faded with time, the pigments disappeared, and for centuries the buildings remained as ruins of white marble for the later generations.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Jacques-Ignace Hittorff succeeded in conveying the attention toward the discovery, made previously to him but neglected for many years, that the Greek architecture was not white – as it was believed for centuries based on the color of the ruins. It was polychromatic. Hittorff published these findings in his book of 1851 on the polychromy of Greek architecture, where he made a case of the temple of Empedocles in Selinus, Sicily [3]. The more general acceptance of this evidence came to change a long-held view about the Greek sense of beauty and harmony. However, it took some time to change the traditional notion, and the neoclassicist architects of the nineteenth century continued to make neoclassic buildings (based on the orders of Greek architecture) in gray, white, or with a monochromatic appearance. As a practicing architect, Hittorff was an exception, since he made polychromatic buildings [4].

Polychromy was also present in statuary in antique Greece. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Quatremère de Quincy presented a detailed essay on the taste for polychrome sculpture among Greeks and Romans [5]. More recent studies provide additional evidence that Greek artists used to paint with referential colors the marble statues, imitating the colors of skin, hair, representing the colors of clothes, etc. The analysis by Manzelli starts from the first studies on the polychromy of Greek and Roman sculptures, goes through the pigments and painting techniques of statues, and comes to consider the symbolic meanings of color in the ancient classical culture [6].

Roman culture inherited the practice of polychromy from the Greeks and applied it also to statuary and architecture. In the present times, there is still physical evidence of the polychromy used in the interior of houses and buildings in the old Roman city of Pompeii, which remained preserved for centuries under the ashes of the Vesuvius volcano.

There are evidences that the first Christians decorated the catacombs with color. This practice naturally continued with the first Paleochristian churches and during the Romanic style, and acquired a high degree of perfection in the Byzantine period, particularly with the mosaics. This technique of employment of polychromy has made possible the preservation of beautiful abstract decorations and figurative representations over a 1000 years until nowadays.

During the Middle Ages the polychromy in architecture was particularly prominent in the stained glass windows of the cathedrals. The colored windows also remained until now without deterioration. But, even when it is not always visible today, because pigments have faded, the interior of Gothic cathedrals exhibited architectural elements, such as columns and arches, painted in many colors, in addition to polychrome sculptures. What seems more surprising, from recent discoveries, is that not only the interior spaces but also the facades of many Gothic cathedrals were painted with polychromatic combinations. A restoration of the western facade of the Amiens cathedral made in the 1990s revealed that it was originally painted in various colors and that by the thirteenth century it had a polychromatic appearance.

In the Renaissance, most of the practice of polychromy applied directly on structural or decorative elements of architecture started to be neglected, and was partially replaced by representative frescoes and paintings on the walls and ceilings that endorsed architectonic spaces with color and images “borrowed” from the art of painting. According to Leon Solon, it was in this period that color began to be avoided and disassociated from architecture ([7], pp. 9–10). Even when the Renaissance implicated a classical revival, at this time, around the fifteenth century, very little or nothing was known about the polychromy of the Roman and Greek classical architecture, because the only remnants were achromatic or monochromatic ruins, and archeological studies had to wait until the nineteenth century to flourish. However, evidence of polychromatic architecture of the medieval churches was supposedly present in the fifteenth century, but since the Renaissance was also a strong reaction against the Gothic style, this may have been another reason for abandoning color. Solon presents various other reasons and makes some speculations about this feature of Renaissance architecture ([7], pp. 11–15).

Owen Jones and Gottfried Semper were two nineteenth-century architects who deserve a special mention due to their contributions to the study of polychromatic architecture. In 1852, Jones published An Attempt to Define the Principles which Should Regulate the Employment of Colour in the Decorative Arts, in which he makes 22 propositions or rules for the use of color [8]. Jones was also responsible for coloring a Greek monument exhibited in the Crystal Palace, and he did this task based upon the researches of his time. In a book published in 1854, he explains and defends the criteria with which he selected and applied colors to the different parts of the monument [9]. An appendix of the book includes a fragment written by Gottfried Semper on the origin of polychromy, reviewing cultures such as Indians, Jews and Phoenicians, Greeks, Assyrians, Persians, Egyptians, Chinese, etc. Semper sets forth the hypothesis that this origin relies in textiles, which constitute the oldest manufactures used as covering, shelters, fences, or partitions of space in most cultures. Since textiles were usually dyed in many colors, it is supposed that this practice moved in a natural way to architecture, when textiles were replaced by strongest materials in order to build living spaces ([9], pp. 47–53). The Grammar of Ornament, published by Jones in 1856, constitutes an extraordinary source of historical color designs, systematically arranged and covering different geographies and periods, from the ancient times to the early seventeenth century [10].

Another source of information on polychromatic decoration, in this case concentrated on the medieval-style architecture, and particularly on the Gothic revival and Victorian style of the nineteenth century in England, is the book published in 1882 by the Scottish architects and brothers George and William Audsley, with plenty of illustrations in the form of colored plates [11].

Architectural Polychromy in the Twentieth Century

The Case of Le Corbusier

Without any doubt, the richest and most complex personality of twentieth-century architecture has been Le Corbusier (Charles Edouard Jeanneret). His relationship with color has been complex too, and sometimes contradictory [4]. Between Bruno Taut, uncompromising defender and propagandist of polychrome architecture, and Walter Gropius, who theorizes about color but in his works uses it in extremely moderate doses, Le Corbusier appears to be midway. Precisely, he maintains some differences with Taut regarding color. About the chromatic audacity of Taut, Le Corbusier goes on to say, “My God, Taut is color blind!”

The early writings about color of Le Corbusier were published in the articles on purism and cubism in the journal LEsprit Nouveau, in collaboration with the painter Amédée Ozenfant. A 1918 article reads,

The idea of form precedes that of color. The form is preeminent, color is but one of its accessories. Color depends entirely of the material shape: the concept of sphere, for instance, precedes the concept of color; it is conceived as a colorless sphere, a colorless plane, color is not conceived independently of some support. Color is coordinated with form, but the reciprocal is not true. ([12], p. 42)

Some other articles published in 1921, 1923, and 1924 in the same journal proceed more or less in the same vein, that is, denying any importance that color might have in the construction of space in painting [13]. The curious fact is that a few years later, in his writings on architectural polychromy of 1931, Le Corbusier seems to have changed his mind completely, to the extent of quoting and agreeing with Fernand Léger, who said, “Man needs colors to live, it is an element as necessary as water and fire.” In addition, Le Corbusier describes examples of his own use of color in order to drastically change the spatial perception of architecture, as in the neighborhood designed and built in Pessac [14].

In his monograph written for the exhibition of the Pavillon des Temps Nouveaux, Le Corbusier includes a chapter entitled “Polychromy = Joy,” in which he associates the creative ages of architecture with the vitality of chromatic color and relates the stagnant academicism to sad gray ([15], pp. 22–23). It seems that in both his theories and his works, Le Corbusier evolved toward a more conscious and thorough consideration of the power that color has to modify the spatial environment. This is especially evident in the buildings projected and built after World War II, in what is called his “brutalist” period.

As with the works by other architects of the modern movement, Le Corbusier’s architecture (which was reproduced in black-and-white photography in its time) is being reconsidered in the light of recent restorations and studies. The Ville Saboye, a paradigm of modern architecture of the 1920s and 1930s, was not white (as it appeared in many publications) but developed a complex polychromatic scheme [16].

Le Corbusier’s text on architectural polychromy, written in the 1930s, remained as an unpublished manuscript. The first edition of this text, including also the color collections produced for the Salubra wallpaper company, was edited by Arthur Rüegg and published in 1997 [14, 17]. As for the polychromy in the purist architecture of Le Corbusier, and his evolution, see also the recent book by Jan De Heer [18].

Polychromy in Modern Architecture and Beyond

Apart from the particular case of Le Corbusier, there are many other examples of polychromy in architecture in the twentieth century. At the beginning of the century, the Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles were particularly profuse with colors. The Neoplasticist movement is recognized by the use of pigmentary primary colors red, yellow, and blue in high saturation and combined with black and white in different spatial planes. The best examples of Neoplasticist architecture and design can be found in the works by Gerrit Rietveld. The followers of the organicist architecture (whose paradigm is Frank Lloyd Wright), supporters of not covering surfaces with paints but leaving the materials to express their inherent color, were not less aware of the value of color. Perhaps with the aim of providing a rich polychromy without using paints, Wright made a plentiful use of stained glass windows, as a way of “painting” with light.

The main idea behind the polychromy of modern architecture is that color is not used with a decorative purpose. Instead, it should appear to enhance or modificate the space, to express functions, or to differentiate materials or construction elements. Within some architectural trends or contexts of the modern movement it was evident already in the early 1960s that color entailed new solutions but also new problems. It is for this reason that the Scientific and Technical Center for Building (Centre Scientifique et Technique du Batiment) in France organized a seminar on architectural polychromy under the direction of Guy Habasque, and with the participation of color consultants Antoine Fasani, Jacques Fillacier, Bernard Lassus, Georges Patrix, and Erasme Saffre. The discussions of this seminar were published in 1961 in an issue of the Cahiers of this Center [19].

After the modern movement (represented mainly by Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Mies van der Rohe, and Walter Gropius), the postmodernist reaction of the 1970s and 1980s was accompanied by a different view about color and polychromatic compositions. Postmodernism brought about a host of architects concerned with the references to history and the environment, and polychromy in architecture also acquired a new meaning under these orientations. As examples, the works by Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, Michael Graves, and Stanley Tigerman (in the USA), Paolo Portoghesi and Aldo Rossi (in Italy), Aldo van Eyck (in the Netherlands), and Mario Botta (in Switzerland) can be mentioned. In Latin America, there have been also outstanding cases of recognized masters of architecture that are paradigmatic for their conception and application of polychromy. Three of them deserve a special mention: Carlos Raúl Villanueva in Venezuela, Luis Barragán in Mexico, and Clorindo Testa in Argentina [4].



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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Secretaria de Investigaciones FADU-UBAUniversidad de Buenos Aires, and ConicetBuenos AiresArgentina