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 The book did, however, superseded Newton’s in so far as it attracted the attentions of many great artists, who were obviously more drawn to Goethe’s prose style and his important insights;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

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