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Goethe's Color Theory

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

When we see color, is it only a matter of light reflecting on a surface? Or is there more involved? German writer Johann Goethe thought a lot about it. In this lesson, explore the basics of Goethe's color theory.

Who was Goethe?

German writer and politician Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832) was a multi-talented individual. A celebrity in his native country by the time he was in his 20s, he was an important figure in the blossoming of 18th-century German literature, famous for fiction works like Faust. But Goethe explored diverse creative paths. In addition to novels and plays, he wrote epic poems, authored scientific treatises on wide ranging subjects, and dabbled in drawing and painting. It was his experiences with painting that led to his ideas regarding color, which appeared in print in Theory of Colors, published in 1810.

By this time, people were familiar with the color theories of Sir Isaac Newton, the English scientist and mathematician. Newton had published Opticks, the results of his experiments on light and color, in 1704. In it, he stated that color came from light and was the result of physics. Most people accepted this idea -- except Goethe.

Goethe's Color Theory

Goethe disagreed with Newton. He refuted the idea that color was determined solely by light and the color spectrum, instead arguing that color was shaped by perception as well as elements of light and darkness. In these arguments, Goethe became one of the first people to systematically explore color and color theory, the study of how colors are perceived and how they interact with other colors. Unlike Newton, Goethe argued that color needed darkness, and some colors were made with elements of darkness. Here is how Goethe described it: 'Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, one necessary to the production of color . . . color itself is a degree of darkness.'

Scientifically, Newton was right. But Goethe's theories were more art and philosophy than pure science. And, if you think about it, there are differences between how color is created via the visible spectrum (where white is the combination of all colors) versus with pigments (where the more colors you mix together, the darker a color you get). In a way, it was pigments, or colors in paint, that led to Goethe's color experiments, so it's not surprising his ideas differed from those of Newton.

Goethe's Color Wheel and Views on Colors

Color wheel as created by Goethe, 1809. Written in the wheel are the properties Goethe associated with certain colors.
Goethe color wheel

Goethe created his version of a color wheel and arranged the colors according to what he called their natural order. He also explored the impact of colors on emotions and attributed different qualities to certain colors. If you look closely at the color wheel, starting in the area with red and working down to yellow, you can see the word schön, which means beautiful; edel, which means noble; and gut, which means good. Each word corresponds to a section on the wheel. In Goethe's theory, yellow as the color nearest to the light, was bright and exciting. It stood for good. Red stood for gravity, dignity and attractiveness or beauty. Blue, on the other hand, was powerful, but in a slightly negative way- creating a cold impression.

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