By Nina J P Evans

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Goethe’s, Theory of Colours

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was the greatest poet, playwright, novelist and essayist in the German language published, Theory of Colours in 1810. The book contains some of the earliest published descriptions of phenomena such as coloured shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration. Some of the theories discussed in the book were later proven scientifically wrong to Newton’s more scientific approach. The book did, however, superseded Newton’s in so far as it attracted the attentions of many great artists, who were obviously more drawn to Goethe’s prose style and his important insights; particularly about the perception of colour.
“The theory became widely adopted by the art world—especially among the Pre-Raphaelites. J. M. W. Turner studied it comprehensively and referenced it in the titles of several paintings. Wassily Kandinsky considered it one of the most important works.” ~ Theory of Colours
Also Goethe was interested in the fact that scientific ideas are often greatly influenced by their historical context. From the text below, I gather that he felt a strong bias for the warmer range of the spectrum. He considered blue to be cold, he quotes: “blue still brings a principle of darkness with.” As it portrays a receding depth effects; mentioning the colour in the context of a landscape retiring—he also describes blue as, “contradiction between excitement and repose.”

Adopting a scientific approach, he describes the chemical process of mixing colours and examining his visual references through coloured glass; intensify the emotive feelings the single colour hues evokes. His observations include a well-rounded picture in themselves. Referencing: wall paint colours, carpets, metal finishes, and women’s dress fabrics, ribbons to the vastness of landscapes and sunsets. In prose style, perhaps a little superstitiously, especially regarding the delicate nature of the yellow pigment, he explains the psychology of each colour as they are situated on the colour wheel. From reading his text I can see how his colour theories helped inform so much great art. It proves a strong foundation on the psychological impact of colours, and also aids the reader into thinking about the historical contexts of colour and furthermore, the appropriation of colours. The text below is a segment from Goethe’s Theory of Colours.

People experience a great delight in colour, generally. The eye requires it as much as it requires light. We have only to remember the refreshing sensation we experience, if on a cloudy day the sun illumines a single portion of the scene before us and displays its colours. That healing powers were ascribed to coloured gems, may have arisen from the experience of this indefinable pleasure.

The colours which we see on objects are not qualities entirely strange to the eye; the organ is not thus merely habituated to the impression; no, it is always predisposed to produce colour of itself, and experiences a sensation of delight if something analogous to its own nature is offered to it from without; if its susceptibility is distinctly determined towards a given state.

From some of our earlier observations we can conclude that general impressions produced by single colours cannot be changed that they act specially, and must produce definite, specific states in the living organ.

They likewise produce a corresponding influence on the mind. Experience teaches us that particular colours excite particular states of feeling. It is related of a witty Frenchman,“Il prétendoit que son ton de conversation avec Madame étoit change depuis qu'elle avoid changé en cramoisi le meuble de son cabinet, qui étoit bleu.”

In order to experience these influences completely, the eye should be entirely surrounded with one colour; we should be in a room of one colour, or look through a coloured glass. We are then identified with the hue, it attunes the eye and mind in mere unison with itself.

The colours on the plus side are yellow, red-yellow (orange), yellow-red (minim, cinnabar). The feelings they excite are quick, lively, aspiring.


This is the colour nearest the light. It appears on the slightest mitigation of light, whether by semi-transparent mediums or faint reflection from white surfaces. In prismatic experiments it extends itself alone and widely in the light space, and while the two poles remain separated from each other, before it mixes with blue to produce green it is to be seen in its utmost purity and beauty. How the chemical yellow develops itself in and upon the white has been circumstantially described in its proper place.

In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.

In this state, applied to dress, hangings, carpeting, it is agreeable. Gold in its perfectly unmixed state, especially when the effect of polish is superadded, gives us a new and high idea of this colour; in like manner, a strong yellow, as it appears on satin, has a magnificent and noble effect.

We find from experience, again that yellow excites a warm and agreeable impression. Hence, in paining it belongs to the illumined and emphatic side.

This impression of warmth may be experienced in a very lively manner if we look at a landscape through a yellow glass, particularly on  a grey winter's day. The eye is gladdened, the heart expanded and cheered, a glow seems at once to breathe towards us.

If, however, this colour in its pure and bright state is agreeable and gladdening, and in its utmost power is serene and noble, it is, on the other hand, extremely liable to contamination, and produces a very disagreeable effect if it is sullied, or in some degree tends to the minus side. Thus, the colour of sulphur, which inclines to green, has something unpleasant in it.

When a yellow colour is communicated to dull and coarse surfaces, such as common cloth, felt, or the like, on which it does not appear with full energy, the disagreeable effect alluded to is apparent. By a slight and scarcely perceptible change, the beautiful impression of fire and gold is transformed into one not undeserving the epithet foul; and the colour of honour and joy reversed to that of ignominy and aversion.


As no colour can be considered stationary, so we can very easily augment yellow into reddish by condensing or darkening it. The colour increases in energy, and appears in red-yellow more powerful and splendid.

All that we have said of yellow is applicable here in a higher degree. The red-yellow gives an impression of warmth and gladness since it represents the hue of the intense glow of fire, and of the milder radiance of the setting sun. Hence, it is agreeable around us, and again, as clothing, in greater or less degrees is cheerful and magnificent. A slight tendency to red immediately gives a new character to yellow, and while the English and Germans content themselves with bright pale yellow colours in leather, the French, as Castel has remarked, prefer a yellow enhanced to red; in general. Everything in colour is agreeable to them which belongs to the active side.


As pure yellow passes very easily to red-yellow, so the deepening of this last to yellow-red is not to be arrested. The agreeable, cheerful sensation which red-yellow excites, increases to an intolerably powerful impression in bright yellow-red.

The active side is here in its highest energy, and it is not to be wondered at that impetuous, robust, uneducated men, should be especially pleased with this colour. Among savage nations the inclination for it has been universally remarked, and when children, left to themselves, begin to use tints, they never spared vermilion.

In looking steadfastly at a perfectly yellow-red surface, the colour seems actually to penetrate the organ. It produces an extreme excitement, and still acts thus when somewhat darkened. A yellow-red cloth disturbs and enrages animals. I have known men of education to whom its effect was intolerable if they chanced to see a person dressed in a scarlet cloak on a grey, cloudy day.

The colours on the minus side are blue, red-blue, and blue-red. They produce a restless, susceptible, anxious impression.


As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.

This colour has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful, but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.

As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us.

But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies forms, so we love to contemplate blue, not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.

Blue gives us an impression of cold, and thus, again, reminds us of shade. We have before spoken of its affinity with black.

Rooms which are hung with pure blue, appear in some degree larger, but at the same time empty and cold.

The appearance of objects seen through a blue glass is gloomy and melancholy.

When blue partakes in some degree of the plus side, the effect is not disagreeable. Sea-green is rather a pleasing colour.


We found yellow very soon tending to the intense state, and we observe the same progression in blue.

Blue deepens very mildly into red, and thus acquires a somewhat active character, although it is on the passive side. Its exciting power is, however, of a very different kind from that of the red-yellow. It may be said to disturb rather than enliven.

As augmentation itself is not to be arrested, so we feel and inclination to follow the progress of the colour, not however, as in the case of the red-yellow, to see it still increase in the active sense, but to find a point to rest in.

In a very attenuated state, this colour is known to us under the name of lilac; but even in this degree it has something lively without gladness.


This unquiet feeling increases as the hue progresses, and it may be safely assumed that a carpet of a perfectly pure deep blue-red would be intolerable. On this account, when it is used for dress, ribbon, or other ornaments, it is employed in a very attenuated and light state, and thus displays its character as above defined, in a peculiarly attractive manner.

As the higher dignitaries of the church have appropriated this unquiet colour to themselves, we may venture to say that it unceasingly aspires to the cardinal’s red through the restless degrees of a still impatient progression.


We are here to forget everything that borders on yellow or blue. We are to imagine an absolutely pure red, like fine carmine suffered to dry on white porcelain. We have called this colour “purpur” by way of distinction, although we are quite aware that the purple of the ancients inclined more to blue.

Whoever is acquainted with the prismatic origin of red, will not think it paradoxical if we assert that this colour partly actu, partly potentia, includes all the other colours.

We have remarked a constant progress or augmentation in yellow and blue, and seen what impressions were produced by the various states; hence it may naturally be inferred that now, in the junction of the deepened extremes, a feeling of satisfaction must succeed; and thus, in physical phenomena, this highest of all appearances of colour arise from the junction of two contrasted extremes which have gradually prepared themselves for a union.

As a pigment, on the other hand, it presents itself to us already formed, and is most perfect as a hue in cochineal; a substance which, however, by chemical action may be made to tend to the plus or the minus side, and may be considered to have attained the central point in the best carmine.

The effect of this colour is as peculiar as its nature. It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness. The first in its dark deep state, the latter in its light attenuated tint; and thus the dignity of age and the amiableness of youth may adorn itself with degrees of the same hue.

History relates many instances of the jealousy of sovereigns with regard to the quality of red. Surrounding accompaniments of this colour always has a grave and magnificent effect.

The red glass exhibits a bright landscape in so dreadful a hue as to inspire sentiments of awe.

Kermes and cochineal, the two materials chiefly employed in dyeing to produce this colour, incline more or less to the plus or minus state, and may be made to pass and repass the culminating point by the action of acids and alkalis: it is to be observed that the French arrest their operations on the active side, as is proved by the French, scarlet, which inclines to yellow. The Italians, on the other hand, remain on the passive side, for their scarlet has a tinge of blue.


By means of a similar alkaline treatment, the so-called crimson is produced; a colour which the French must be particularly prejudiced against, since they employ the expressions—“Sot en cramoisi, mérchant en cramoisi,” to mark the extreme of the silly and the reprehensible.

If yellow and blue, which we consider as the most fundamental and simple colours, are united as they first appear, in the first state of their action, the colour which we call green is the result.

The eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this colour. If the two elementary colours are mixed in perfect equality so that neither predominates, the eye and the mind repose on the result of this junction as upon a simple colour. The beholder has neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it. Hence, for rooms to live in constantly, the green colour is most generally selected.

Theory of Colours
Wiki/Theory of Colours
Inspired by brain pickings

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Here’s Looking at Hue

Here’s Looking at Hue is a visual blog looking at people, objects, interiors and nature. As the title of the blog suggests colour imagery is sorted in rainbow hues. I like the diversity of the imagery and the visual compositions of photographs of lamps, swimming pools and fashion models. There’s a nice range between illustration and  photography with full artistic credit shown for further explorations. This blogs theme is seemly a simple idea, but could potentially become much more complex with further subject divisions and colour categories. Here, we see a tantalising glimpse of such things—showing us how alluring and unexpectedly colour impacts us and enhances meaning in visual communication.

Colour is the first thing that we are able to perceive when we are looking at things. Here’s looking at Hue is a play on the film dialogue from Casablanca (1942).

Ilsa: I can’t fight it anymore. I ran away from you once. I can’t do it again. Oh, I don’t know what’s right any longer. You have to think for both of us. For all of us.
Rick: All right, I will. Here’s looking at you, kid.
Ilsa: [smiles] I wish I didn’t love you so much.

Thinking of this site with reference to Casablanca, it made me re-consider my first impressions of the image placement. I would have placed them in terms of colour value. Where as at present they have been individually, carefully considered and passionately placed, they may be a little haphazard, but there’s a spark there! Simply put; this site is a dialogue between colour and style.

I thought it would be interesting looking at colours in google images to compare with the visual selections made on Here’s Looking at Hue. Was there I wondered a need for a site like this? I was greatly surprised by the results, considering that I use google images a lot for visual research. The search for yellow for example, overall was a primary yellow. There was little to no variation between of cadmium yellows to lemon yellows, as seen by the thumbnail images. The colour searches for red and blue produced the same result showing little variance from primary red, same too with the blue. Google images lacked the subtle varieties of a single colour, the blog did illustrate colour very elegantly in both colour hues and choice of image.

Also using google images searching three times for red, yellow and then blue visually didn’t inspire much at all, in comparison to the range of hues and stylish imagery on the blog with the same subheadings. The imagery was just so stereotypical of the colour showing; red roses, red football shirts, blue moons and the blue planet earth and yellow ducks. What was interesting was seeing popular culture additions, such as: Sonic the Hedgehog, Red Dwarf’s sci-fi logo, and Taylor Swift’s album titled Red, and the iconic design cover of the Yellow Pages directory, but these didn’t fit with the blogs visual aesthetic. Using Google images initially proved most unsuccessful, which made the blog undoubtedly more worthwhile. Google images performed better with more description, such as: red nature, ideally you need to be even more specific than that.

Exploring individual colours through; hue, saturation and value by looking at objects and such, simplifies the subject matter itself, creating an intensity that sometimes feels a little unreal, a distraction to our normal colour vision. The text is minimally featured, most images are purely pictorial, freely enabling the viewer to create meaningful associations, at present it merely touches the surface. A worthy bookmarkable site that I’m keen to see grow, seeing how colour affects the context of the imagery and us the user interacting with it—with strong psychological, and even maybe physiological effects. What a great blog theme! Here’s looking at you, kid.

Jakob Nylund
Zhe Chen

Monday, April 22, 2013

Helmut Schmid: Design is Attitude

Helmut Schmid is an Austrian designer who studied under Emil Ruder, Kurt Hauert and Robert Buchler at the Basel School of Design. He’s known as a typographer and graphic designer. Designing visual identities and product identities with beautiful compositions using either black and white or a single colour, predominately with black and white text, though on the bottle packaging he utilizes the colour of the drink as the text colour. He combines the clarity of the Swiss Style with a Japanese aesthetic of eliminating clutter. There’s a clarity and an intelligent simplicity in all his pieces.

He is perhaps best known for the bi-lingual packaging identity for Otsuka Pharmaceutical packaging. Schmid Today is a brilliant online digital archive of his projects, exhibitions and new book. I like his inspirational quote below and totally agree that Design is Attitude!
“It is not coincidence that makes a designer but his continuity. And continuity means working and searching, working and fighting, working and finding, finding and seeing, seeing and communicating, and again working and searching. Designers must challenge the past, must challenge the present, must challenge the future; but first of all, designers must be true to themselves. Design is attitude.” ~ Helmut Schmid, Design is Attitude 2007
click to enlarge

Friday, April 19, 2013


An intense cacophony of colour that suggests the turmoil of Mr. Wonkas vision.

Photograph by Sam West 

50 Years of Space Exploration: Infographic

73 missions to the Moon—43 missions to Venus—40 missions to Mars. This is an infographic titled: 50 Years of Exploration. Commissioned by National Geographic Magazine and designed by 5W Infographics.

As you’d guess USSR and Nasa are heading as pioneers of the solar system, as well as India and China who are also on the map. The infographic clearly illustrates, just how much of deep space is still to be discovered and explored! As planets such as Jupiter and Neptune drift off much further from the earth, they poise must more of a challenge. What venture to of traveled around the edge of our sun!  As well as the amount of times that there have been missions to the moon!

The diagram achieves this amazing visual result that works by combining elements aesthetically with graphic flare and style, as an inforgraphic it is clearly readable. It’s very pleasing to the eye with colour coordinated curved lines that are controlled in such a way that they don’t spiral out of control and result in confusion. Also, factually there are segments of textual information that supports the visual information positioned into key areas. The dialogues impressively upbeat attitude quotes: “The New Horizons mission to Pluto is under way, as is the Messenger mission to Mercury. Others not yet launched, perhaps not yet dreamed, await.” Sound very Sci-Fi, rather than academic.

click to see full-screen

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Thoughts on Helvetica

The most famous, or at least the most recognizable, typeface in the world. I’m not sure if that’s because it was designed in 1957, we all like the things our parents and grandparents used to have in the home. Or is it purely the clarity and balance of letterforms used especially well in headings that appeals? As similar as it is in typographic form to Univers, Arial and lesser known Folio. The font Helvetica has indisputably a better sounding name, which incidentally almost wasn't the case, thankfully, it was renamed from Neue Haas Grotesk. 

Of the thoughts about Helvetica, I especially liked Michael Bierut’s Coke analogy, he nails it! As Helvetica in appearance looks nothing like the font on the Coke can, yet it has the very ‘Real Thing’ to it. Lastly, there’s Kyle Copper’s conversation with Mr. Rand, as well as being amusing it also cleverly makes you reappraise the functionality of the font. We need adaptability to grow and to value textual meanings in typographic layouts… communication is key. Helvetica is clearly a font that is taken both seriously and  humorously in a deadpan kind of way. The anecdotal quotes below are mostly pulled from Gary Hewitt’s documentary ‘Helvetica’, yes it’s a film title too, whatever next!

I’ve chosen quite a vintage feel to the images below in contrast to the way the font is used by many of today’s leading brands. 

You can say, ‘I love you’ in Helvetica. And you can say it with Helvetica Extra Light if you want to be really fancy. Or you can say it with the Extra Bold if it's really intensive and passionate, you know, and it might work.” ~ Massimo Vignelli

It’s The Real Thing. Period. Coke. Period. Any Questions? Of Course Not.” ~ Michael Bierut

Maybe the feeling you have when you see particular typographic choices used on a piece of packaging is just I like the look of that, that feels good, that’s my kind of product. But that's the type casting its secret spell.” ~ Rick Poynor

A real typeface needs rhythm, needs contrast, it comes from handwriting, and that's why I can read your handwriting, you can read mine. And I’m sure our handwriting is miles away from Helvetica or anything that would be considered legible, but we can read it, because there’s a rhythm to it, there’s a contrast to it. Helvetica hasn't got *any* of that.
Interviewer: Why, fifty years later, is it still so popular?
Erik Spiekermann: [sighs] Why is… bad taste ubiquitous? ~ Erik Spiekermann

And I think I'm right calling Helvetica the perfume of the city. It is just something we don’t notice usually but we would miss very much if it wouldn’t be there.” ~ Lars Müller 

I discovered that I never really used Helvetica but I like to look at it. I like the VW beetle, too, although I’ve never driven one. ~ Stefan Sagmeister

I remember a time at Yale when my work was being critiqued by Paul Rand. Mr. Rand told me only to use Helvetica as a display face never in text, then he squinted, leaned in, and whispered in my ear, because Helvetica looks like dogshit in text’.” Kyle Cooper

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Ode to Typography

I love
the letters
of your hair,
of your glance, 
of your figure.
In the leaves
of youthful springtime
sparkles the diamantine
write your name 
with the fresh initials of dew.
My love, 
your hair profound
as the jungle or dictionary 
covers me 
with its totality
of red language.

Pablos Neruda’s poem: Ode to Typography pays homage to his love of life and language, deconstructing letter forms and words rich in metaphor, he creates pictures in the mind, playfully using expressive romanticised words and letter forms. It’s important to note that it was written in 1964. As he has deftly captured the history of typography, up until his present time, from Gutenberg’s moveable type around 1439 to Linotype that was used up until the 1960s and 70s.

I don’t think this poem is about a lover or a muse. I think it’s more that the poet was referring to the letterforms as being feminine in form, in the same way that ships and trains are known and named. Maybe typography was more feminine then than it is now with the aid of computers and mathematical algorithms, creating infinite form and variations. A good font example to illustrate this point is Helvetica, designed by Mas Miedinger in 1957, but today it has 96 lettering styles and weights.

This poem beautifully acknowledges the founders the typesetters and the paper mills, now read perhaps a little nostalgically.

To complement this piece I have chosen Sofie Højgaard Thybo’s beautiful visual interpretation. As a part of her project she assembled a handmade book and produced type with a Trodat rubber stamp as a method of creating simple hand printed lettering. Illustrating only the capital letter forms, seeking inspiration from the Book of Kells (late 8th or early 9th century), a bit earlier than Gutenberg’s first press. However, she’s taken the poem backwards and forwards by using these contrasting methods of lettering styles, a perfect picturesque contrast to the other simpler letter forms.