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Nathalie Balthazar: I teach color

In this series dedicated to the teaching of color, here is an article by Nathalie Balthazar. The original article in French is available here. Nathalie is interior architect, visual artist and color teacher at the École Superior des Arts (ESA) Saint-Luc in Brussels.

Inspired by the work of Jürgen Albrecht, Nathalie has developed a series of creative exercises for her students. The latter thus explore the impact of light, color and materials by photographing the interiors of models of their design.

Nathalie worked for a few years as an interior designer, but it is above all the teaching profession that she has embraced. Indeed, for 15 years, she has given courses in secondary education, preparatory courses for architecture and interior design studies. Then, since 2004, she has taught exclusively to bachelor’s degree students in Space Arts, in the Interior Design option. In addition to color, she has also taught design since she started teaching.

In her own plastic research, she has created imaginary spaces from cardboard boxes, then from papers worked with drawing or painting, transformed into spaces full of mystery by simple folding and by the magic of lighting.

Box interiors, Nathalie Balthazar, 2015-2016

As for her compositions of more or less translucent colored papers, they invite us to appreciate a continuum of colors passing from one to the other, sometimes delicately and sometimes brutally according to the contrasts thought by the artist.

Reframing, Nathalie Balthazar, 2018

For your creations, be inspired by the exercises of articulation of angles and design of boxes, really original.

I now leave you in the hands of the interior designer, the artist, the teacher.

Come in, it’s inside

For more than 20 years, I have been teaching the Color course in the first year of the Bachelor’s program at he Ecole Supérieure des Arts. As the number of students is important (+/-40), I work together with a colleague. For many years with Benoît Lallemand, now with Maxence Mathieu. For the past 4 years, I have also held the 2nd year course.

The objective of the Interior Design option is to ” (…) provide the student with the necessary skills to elaborate an interior design project: from the formulation of the concept, to the development of the project up to the detailed elaboration of the furniture and the finishing touches “.

In this context, the goal of the Color course is to progressively bring the student to acquire a sensitivity and a know-how in the choice and implementation of finishes for an interior space. The identity thus given to a place is determined by the context, both material and cultural, even historical, and by the program desired by the client.

The Color course, which lasts 3 hours per week, supports the main interior design workshop. The latter confronts the student, through custom design projects of furniture and interior spaces, with the complexity of applied arts. Aesthetic choices (forms, connections, proportions, geometry, colors, materials…) are indeed permanently intertwined, interwoven with constraints and technical and functional choices. The economic factors are temporarily put aside.

Is there a plan? Follow the colored signs 📘📗📒📕!

I organize the course according to 4 parallel paths ( 📘, 📗, 📒, 📕 ). Along exercises and projects, these paths quickly end up crossing and joining towards the final Bachelor project: the creation of an interior space, an object or a piece of furniture, in the respect of a precise set of specifications.

Here are these 4 themes:

📘 colors in themselves: “painting” colors and their mixtures, chords, contrasts, interactions, palettes;
📗 color in a three-dimensional space: colo instability and the impact, both physiological and psychological, of colors/materials, and of light, on the perception of a space and on the visitor’s feeling;
📒 the extension of the notion of color to materials and their specific qualities (plastic and non technical), the association of colors and materials/textures;
📕 the consideration of all the previous “ingredients” in the service of the scenario that will determine the character of a place.

📘 colors in themselves

At the beginning of the curriculum, the students get some theoretical information. In particular, we project the French film the world of colors. Then, to get general notions on the colors/paintings (nuances, mixtures, agreements, contrasts…) they make abstract compositions in 2D. These theoretical achievements and mastery of the appropriate vocabulary will contribute to the professionalism of the interior designer.

The student will observe, manipulate, classify, mix and spread paint (gouache or acrylic), reproduce colors, cut, glue, assemble (with a chosen accessory), move flat areas, compose, crop…

Research and reproduction of the nuances present in a sample of fabric. On the left, Johan Wauthier, uniform color (gouache on Canson paper). On the right, chromatic classifications of colors extracted from magazines; saturated colors lie on the central axis while lighter and darker unsaturated versions lie on both sides.
Color classification. On the left, saturated colors of a chromatic circle of 12 tones classified in the form of a flip-book; uniform colors (gouache on Canson paper). In the center, installation of objects representing the progression of 12 saturated colors. On the right, chromatic circle inspired by George Nelson’s clocks (uniform gouache painting folded and glued, lines drawn with a felt pen).

📘 Chords and contrasts

To introduce the theory on chords and contrasts, I base myself mainly on two books. The first one is ” The Art of color” by Johannes Itten (see a summary of these contrasts here). The second is a French book: ” La couleur et ses accords” (Color and its chords) by Robert Montchaud.

Amandine Galienne’s “Les 100 mots de la couleur” (The 100 Words of the Color) gives good advice too. And recently I discovered the book “Leçons de couleur pour la maison” (Lessons of color for the house) by Didier-Michel. I find interesting his denomination of harmonization principles: similarity, imitation, compensation, complementarity, frank or secret chords, assonance, consonance, dissonance. These main principles, represented in the form of small diagrams, inspire the color combinations proposed in the! book. Exploration to be continued !

📘 Compositions

The exercise at this 1st stage consists in realizing, by means of flat colors, small compositions. Each one satisfies precise instructions of chords and contrast. The students reach the goal by varying the shades (pure or mixed colors), their number, their position (contact or not), their proportion (from very little of this color to really a lot of another), the croppings (which offer another point of view on the initial composition) .

While controlling the above parameters, all color chords may reach a balanced association, at least if you look for harmony. But you could also seek for dissonance or use these parameters to create a tension. It’s all about the scenario, the atmosphere you want to create.

I still smile at the exclamation of a student trying to reframe her composition. With her two crossed L-shaped pieces of paper, finally reaching the highest contrast in quantity: “But that changes everything!”. Indeed, the modification of the relative quantities of the colors in a composition, that changes everything. As Johannes Itten writes in “The Art of Color”, “Studying and determining the size of the colored surfaces in a composition is at least as important as choosing the colors themselves”.

Variation on chords and contrasts. Marie Micciche, Left: uncropped composition, right: cropped composition.
📘 Palettes

In order to bring the student to conceive the spaces as three-dimensional compositions, I ask to observe and analyze paintings. Indeed, colors, textures, and lights could respond to each other as in a pictorial work. I am not only inspired by “The Art of Color” but also by more contemporary 📗 color in space interventions.

For my part, I developed and created very young my sensitivity to colors and my visual culture thanks to the many visits to Fine Arts museums where my father took me, and thanks to his many art books that I leafed through for a long time, sitting on the floor surrounded by them.

📗 Color in space

After the first basic 2D exercises come more complex abstract three-dimensional compositions, but still without functional purpose.

In addition to the aspects already mentioned above, these exercises are an opportunity to approach the complex problem of color in a 3D space. And this through the manipulation and observation, not only of the interactions between neighboring colors, but also of the changes of perception of these according to their place in space and their position in relation to the light.

Thus, the student discovers that flat areas of the same color placed in the shadow, in the penumbra or in full light are no longer perceived as a single color. This seems obvious, but not necessarily to the student who is just starting out. For this awareness, I find concrete models in real materials more efficient than digital ones.

The effect of light

The study of the effects of light on the perception of colors is a difficult subject.. I prefer to leave it to other professors specialized in lighting. Indeed, they approach it in workshops and theoretical courses in a more objective and technical manner.

I content myself with making students aware of these sensitive phenomena by regularly drawing their attention to what happens around them in the places where they live and work, the places they pass through: natural light, the orientation of the building, the evolution of light as the hours and seasons pass, the influence of bad artificial lighting on colors (by advising them, for example, not to try to reproduce a color with gouache in the middle of the night under a yellowish bulb).

Didier-Michel summarizes this complexity: “Color is an expression of life, and therefore it is not stable. This is the difficulty to capture it, to work it, to implement it, to make associations.”

📒 The materials and their qualities

To the contrasts approached in the first exercises, those 📘 of quantity, quality, light/dark, complementary, hot/cold, proposed and formalized by Johannes Itten, is added the contrast of quality of materials: matte/brilliant, opaque/translucent/transparent, solid/openworked, smooth/textured, new/patinated.

This contrast is widely used in interior design, particularly through the use of mirrors, colored glass walls, openwork partitions (moucharabieh) which, by creating new interactions in space, between different planes, between the exterior and interior, exacerbate the play of light and shadow, enrich the palette with reflections, interference, superimpositions, touches, flashes of light, etc.

📗 Impact in space

In order to explore these aspects, here is a recent exercise developed with my young colleague Maxence Mathieu; it consists in articulating 2 angles, one made of cardboard covered with colored uniform color, smooth, textured, the other made of colored materials, translucent, openwork, etc.

Flat corners (folded), overview (color palettes, light or dark shades, inspired by various paintings from a research in library)
Marie Micciche, Angle.
Ysaline Roba, Angle
Clara Fonsny, Angle
Blerona Muji, Angle
Emilie Thoen, Angle

To guide the student in this compositional work and to force him to become familiar with the notions of chord and contrast, we give precise instructions while leaving him a great deal of freedom of interpretation.

Given the difficulty of abstraction of this exercise, this year we have made it more concrete. By means of 2 angles, the students had to conceive for the patio of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Brussels, a space of strolling, approach, discovery and contemplation of a pictorial work. The scenario (device, atmosphere, choice of colors and materials, sitting in front of the painting…) had to be inspired by the chosen art work.

Delphine Cornette, 2021
Céleste Carré, 2021

As for the 📘 simultaneous contrast, which is very particular, I touch on it when I talk about complementary colors; and a bit more in 2nd grade when I go deeper into thinking about color in space.

📕 In the service of the scenario

In the progression of the Interior Design option curriculum, my colleagues and I quickly come to concrete exercises, more in line with interior designer training.

That’s why early in the student’s career the objective of defining a very particular identity to a place, even an abstract one, of creating a coherent scenario for the enhancement of an object or creating an adequate ambiance to the program of a design project is presented. The student is then led to compose mood boards as tools for research or expression of his intentions.

These are presentation boards, in which colors, materials, objects, inspirational images, reference photos… Boards that, to be more professional, are captioned with the precise references of the ingredients of the project (among others, brand references or NCS references for colors).

Associations of colors, materials, images, objects (research photographed in workshop)

📕 Functional Projects

A few functional projects, as capstone exercises, are studied in the Color course. For example, in 1st year, a display stand of upholstery fabrics or wallpaper from a specific brand, or even of a designer.

One of the challenges for the students is to keep their focus on the project’s objective: to enhance the brand’s product and style. To keep their attention on the focus, we remind them not to forget the “marshmallow”. This is a reference to the challenge the whole class participated in earlier this year, to build the tallest tower in 18 minutes with given materials, with a marshmallow on top. How many groups failed because they forgot to place the marshmallow on top of the tower?

Jonasz Olivier, Stylist’s presentation stand
Eden Delauw, Stylist’s presentation stand

📕Space design

In the 2nd year, the project presented below consists in the layout of a small space dedicated to a function: the reading of books or magazines whose style (fashion magazines, comics, art books or philosophical essays…) could be the source of their inspiration in order to create a coherent and conducive atmosphere for this activity. In addition, the students had to choose a carpet from which to draw inspiration for the color palette, the patterns and the selection of furniture.

Sophie Cupper, Design of a space dedicated to reading
Lyson Vannieuwenhuyzen, Design of a space dedicated to reading

📚Synthesis Project

Before ending the year with a small synthesis project of this kind, I am essentially directing the course to think about 📗 the role(s) of color/materials in the design of spaces and how they affect our perception and feeling.

📕The intention

How to make students understand that the choice of colors, materials and lighting, the choice of their position, their form, their correspondence, or not, to the boundaries and geometry of the space, must be based on thoughtful intentions answering questions such as:

  • what can colors and materials be used for in the space I am creating, only to “look pretty”?
  • what do they highlight, what do they hide?
  • what values, what messages do they express?
  • what emotions do they awaken?
  • What is the impact of colors/materials on our feeling, our behavior in this space?

📕 Awareness

Aren’t the quality of the feeling and the psychological comfort (very relative) the essential finality of a place lived by people, or simply crossed by them? Recently I discovered the beautiful book Making Space by Atelier Modijefsky, which expresses this attention to the person with great poetry and kindness.

I try to raise this awareness, on the one hand by exercises 📗 of analysis of photos of existing interiors following a precise grid, on the other hand by exercises of integration of colors/materials in various ways, and this either in 📗 3D model, or in 📗 digital images.


When looking for documents to analyze, I invite the students to favor, as much as possible, photos found in the library, in news magazines, in “good books”, and therefore not only on the web, in order to avoid too much uniformity.

In the same vein, during the classes I put a lot of books at the students’ disposal so that they discover other spaces than the flat screen. For me, 📗 the book is a space in its own right where texts and images dialogue face to face, back to back, a space to be explored, to be manipulated in multiple ways, a space where time can even seem dissolved. What a feeling of satisfaction when a student confides in me, in a complicit tone, that he has bought a book.

For one of these exercises on 📗 color in space, I also draw on my 📗 personal research as a visual artist.

📗 The boxes: exercise of putting in space

Without immediately explaining to the students the final objective, I ask them to apply a color, very freely, with any material, on a sheet of paper, then to cut this sheet according to an imposed development, development that they will fold in order to create a box whose interior strangely resembles a real space. This box, pierced with “windows”, exposed in various ways to daylight or artificial light, is photographed. The result is often “bluffing”, it is as if one was inside.

These photos are used as supports for an observation exercise. The same space is transformed very differently according to the colored interventions (hue, shape…), the lighting (hue, daylight or artificial, position of the source…), the points of view …. Observations that lead the students to describe, in addition to their approach, what they could feel when entering, when walking through such an environment.

I pay particular attention to the use of appropriate vocabulary, to the search for words that express a feeling beyond a first superficial impression (it’s nice, I like it…). This writing exercise is often a prerequisite for an oral presentation in class.

Box development before folding, overview
Juliette Vermeersch, box interior
Justyna Krasowska, box interior
Laly Deprez, box interior
Soares Eduardo, box interior
Charlotte Simonet, box interior
Juliette Vermeersch, box interior
Laly Deprez, box interior
Maude Moreau, box interior

This experience of colors placed freely on the interior walls of a volume, is an opportunity to present contemporary visual artists who propose less conventional integrations of color in space, for example integrations that do not respect the limits between surfaces or do not respect the geometry of it. I am thinking, among others, of the work of Jean Glibert, Pieter Vermeersch, Cécile Bart. Opportunity also to solve these exercises with digital tools this time.

Charlotte Simonet, according to the instructions: give the impression that the space is more crushed (wider, less high) by respecting the geometry of the space but not the limits between the surfaces.
Marie Detinne, according to the instructions: give the impression that the space is narrower (longer) by respecting neither the geometry of the space nor the limits between the surfaces
Elia Larred, according to the instruction: create a contradiction between the right and the left of the space respecting the geometry of the space and the limits between the surfaces.
Maureen Durin, according to an instruction: give the impression that the space is lower in height by respecting neither the geometry, nor the limits between the surfaces.
Audrey Detré, according to an instruction: to draw the attention towards a place of the space, by respecting neither the geometry, nor the limits between the surfaces.

How do we go about it? With a brush or a mouse?

For almost 3 years I have been developing new course materials in the form of PowerPoint. The work is in progress but I already share the slides with the students.

One course is an introduction to the perception of colors, to the vocabulary specific to this domain, to the mixtures; a second one is devoted to the chords and the contrasts; a third one approaches the color in space by the means of questions and examples; finally, others still develop the themes of the symbolism and of the classification of the colors.

The subject of the color in space questions me the most; it requires much research and adjustments. Fortunately, it seems that there is more and more relevant literature on this subject (see references of books at the end of the article).


Although the traditional material tools (paint mixtures, flat colors, models, material boards…) are used a lot at the beginning of the curriculum so that the student is confronted with the material, with concrete problems, so that he visualizes the space as well as possible, so that he becomes aware of the very real impact of light on the perception of colors, we use more and more the computer tools (Photoshop, Illustrator, Sketchup…) These tools, studied in Paul Roger’s Computer Graphics course with whom I hope to collaborate more and more, are invaluable to students in presenting their projects and communicating their intentions.

For the Color course, the 2nd year students work essentially with these computer tools but a punctual return to the material-painting and cardboard, an exploration of other tools such as photography, new spatial manipulations, seem to be highly appreciated.

In Summary

To conclude this guided tour through my teaching, here are the learnings that our students should acquire at the end of the 2 years of bachelor’s degree in the Interior Design option at the Ecole Supérieure des Arts (ESA) Saint-Luc in Brussels.

Without ever losing sight of the context and the program of the exercise or project, based on the acquired knowledge, both theoretical and practical, but also by trusting their intuition and talent (this is me adding, it is not in the official document), students will be able to :

  • collect and choose information, references, images, “objects” (materials, samples, furniture, etc.)
  • observe and analyze them to identify their characteristics,
  • explore creative solutions,
  • in the search for associations of colors, materials, shapes, lights..,
  • in the choice of their positions and their relationships in space,
  • communicate and argue their intentions (scenario) using appropriate techniques.

Greener elsewhere?

In addition to the books and sites mentioned in the text, here is a list of recommendations. The full list is available in the original article; only English books are listed below.

For the multiple approach (art, stylism, architecture, design, interior design…) of the symbolism of the color and the topicality of certain examples, I recommend: Laura Perryman The Colour Bible, The definitive guide to the history, use and meaning of colour, Octopus Books, Septembre  2021.

As far as color in space is concerned, because the subject is rarely discussed and for its well selected examples, please consult: Kerstin Schultz, Hedwig Wiedemann-Tokarz, Eva Maria Herrmann, Birkhaäuser, Thinking Color in Space, Positions, Projects, Potentials, Bâle, 2019.

For the boldness of colorful interventions in interior design: Iris De Feijter and Irene Schampaert, Who’s Afraid Of Pink, Orange & Green? Colorfull Living and Interiors, éditions Lannoo, Tielt, Belgium, 2018. And by the same author: The Complete Book of Colourful Interiors, Tips, tricks and inspiration, Lannoo editions, Belgium, 2021.

Some artists whose spatial interventions are particularly interesting: Jean Glibert, Pieter Vermeersch, Cécile Bart, Studio Olafur Eliasson. Have a look at their website.

In terms of Design, for the quality and sensitivity of the work of Hella Jongerius, designer and artistic director at Vitra : Hella Jongerius, I don’t have a favourite colour, creating the Vitra colour & material library, gestalten, Berlin, 2016. For the quality of the chosen examples: David Harrison, A Century of Colour in Design, Thames Hudson.

And, finally, for the beauty of the book and for the enlargement of the notion of color to that of material, matter, texture, light John Pawson, Spectrum, Phaidon, New York, 2017 and John Pawson, Mimimum, Phaidon, New York, 1996.

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