Sunday, December 20, 2009

Goethe’s Color Oppositions

Complementary colors suggest an opposition of elemental principles, like fire and ice. Blue opposes *yellow; red challenges green. These antagonistic pairings seem to correspond to the way our visual systems are wired.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book Theory of Colors (Zur Farbenlehre) was published in 1810. It’s is not so much a scientific theory as a catalog of observations about the experience of color vision.

Based on his first-hand experience, he believed that color arose from the interaction between light and darkness. Darkness is not the absence of light, but rather its rival or counterpart. Blue, he believed, is a lightening of black. Yellow is a darkening of white. All other colors are grouped between them.

Goethe looked for chromatic effects at places where light and dark edges intersect, such as along the edges of dark mullions crossing bright windows. He noticed that if we stare at a strong red color and then look at a white wall, a green afterimage emerges.

He arranged the color wheel with the symmetrical six-color spacing that we’re familiar with today. Opposing pairs of hues line up across the center. Yellow and red were at the “plus” side of the color wheel, and they represent “light, brightness, force, warmth, and closeness." Color schemes where yellow, red, and purple predominate, he believed, bring forth feelings of radiance, power, and nobility.

Blue, he believed, stands for "deprivation, shadow, darkness, weakness, coldness, and distance.” The colors on the cold or “minus” side evoke feelings of dread, yearning, and weakness. “Colors are the deeds of light,” he declared, “its deeds and sufferings.”

His views were at odds with the objective scientific principles of Sir Isaac Newton, which didn’t take into account the human observer. Goethe was more concerned with our response to light and color in physiological, moral, and spiritual terms.

Some of his ideas about color pairings have been echoed in the modern opponent process theory of color vision, which states that all colors that we see are the result of interactions between pairs of color receptors.

But his greatest contribution was to inspire generations of artists, including J.M.W. Turner and even Ludwig van Beethoven.
(*Note: in our perception of color, blue opposes yellow, but in pigments, orange would be the complement)
William Turner. Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps. 1812. From Olga's Gallery

P.S. Thanks to BoingBoing and Reddit for spotlighting GurneyJourney


Casey Klahn said...

I was fascinated to read Alberti's views (On Painting, Alberti) - or rather, renaissance views, of light and dark as generators of color. Funny that that view persisted until Goethe's time in the early nineteenth century.

I feel that color still has a long journey before we fully understand it.

Don Cox said...

"Note: in our perception of color, blue opposes yellow, but in pigments, orange would be the complement"

Not really. The opposite of yellow in pigments and dyes is magenta+cyan, which is blue. Draw a color circle with yellow, magenta and cyan each 120 degrees apart (and red, blue and green in between them), and you will see where the complementaries lie.

However, the complementary phenomena are not very precise.

As for Turner, I think he is working with the older idea of warm versus cool colors, rather than complementaries as described by Chevreuil.

James Gurney said...

Don, yes, you're right when you put it that way. It kind of depends how you define blue. But as I understand it, complementary relationships are a little different in pigment mixtures than they are in afterimages and other measures of perceptual color response.

António Araújo said...

Jim, I have a big (big!) problem with Goethe's book. It is the most overvalued work in the theory of colour there is, perhaps the second being Itten's book. Note. I didn't say valueless, just (hugely) overvalued.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, Goethe was not the first to comprehend colour as a physiological just as much as physical phenomenon, since Newton himself was careful to state it explicitly in his Optics:

"The Rays to speak properly are not coloured. ... [Colours] in the Rays ... are nothing but their Dispositions to propagate this or that motion into the Sensorium; and in the Sensorium they are Sensations of those Motions under the Forms of Colours."

Also, the "discoveries" and observations attributed to Goethe are mostly misatributions, since he was merely compiling know facts realized by predecessors (I didn't know that either until I was told, and, in some cases, checked). The reverence for Goethe is another one of those irrational myths floating around in the art establishment. The reason seems to be that one can more or less read Goethe, whereas Newton takes a bit more work. Or, in most cases, Goethe looks good unread on a shelf, whereas no one will believe that one actually read Newton if it sat there. :)

A great analysis of Goethe's work can be read here (also the site contains the best course in color theory I know of):


Kendra Melton said...

Wonderful post, I'm just beginning a new venture into re-learning color theory. So this came at a perfect time and all the comments associated with it have been a nice addition.

I don't have much background to speak of in color, are there any specific books you guys could recommend?

I had never even heard of Goethe before this post so I'll definitely have to look into it. I checked out Chevreuil while I was still in college but never had a chance to devote much time to it because of classes.

Any additional color advice anyone could offer would be wonderful!

Whimsical Trovers said...

Color oppositions have always fascinated me, but I admit I always tend to ignore whatever is written about them and just go with my instincts. Later, when/if I check, my subjective sense of opposition almost always jibes with the more objective theories.

Cool post, sir. Thank you as always.

Haylee said...

Although this isn't related to color, I found this quote by Goethe quite riveting:

Until One Is Committed

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.

Whatever you can do,
Or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power,
And magic in it.

You may already have this pinned next to your drawing table, although I thought it would be nice for others to see.

Best holiday wishes to you and your family, James!

James Gurney said...

Kendra, One of the best sources of color information is by Bruce MacEvoy, which OMWO mentioned. It gets very deep into technical detail, so I find I have to absorb it in stages.

Mr. MacEvoy, like OMWO, is critical of Goethe, but the criticisms are well worth reading and well reasoned. But I feel regardless of the scientific arguments, Goethe's can be inspiring to the picturemaking process on a poetic level, and after all, whatever leads to good results is worth taking seriously.

Another good compendium of links and books on color is Katherine Tyrell's site Making a Mark:

Also check out, which is a good survey of the topic.

There's useful material in books by Betty Edwards, Andrew Loomis, Walter Sargent, Michael Wilcox, and Richard Schmid. I also recommend "Color and Culture" by John Gage.

Kendra Melton said...

Oh WONDERFUL!!! Thank you so much! That will take a lot of the guess work of hunting down reliable texts on color. I'll have to look into all of those. :]

Steve said...

Haylee, that is a wonderful quotation. I've had a copy of it since first encountering it at the Rochester Zen Center in 1977. These days, it lives in the drawer of my drawing table. I reread it when reaching for tape.

The main body of the quotation is actually from W.H. Murray, the leader of a Scottish expedition in the Himalayas. Just after the words, "..could have dreamt would have come his way," should be the words, "I have learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:"

After that come the closing lines, the only ones actually from Goethe, "Whatever you can do..."

I agree with James, the value of the Goethe thoughts on color are their statements about his perceptions, not their scientific accuracy. Keep in mind, his couplet uses the words "dream" and "magic!"

Roberto said...

I’m with James and Steve on this… Goethe was a poet and an artist. His approach was sensual, intuitive, and metaphorical. He was not describing phenomena, he was describing emotion and psyche. I feel that a complete understanding of color must go beyond stimulant/stimulus and embrace emotion and psychology.
As I understand Goethe’s observations, he organized color into two opposing primary forces: warm and cool, blue and yellow. Blue expresses itself from the darkest indigos thru ultramarine, cobalt, and cerulean and into the lightest tints. Wheras yellow expresses as the palest yellows thru the oranges and down deep into the reds, magentas, and darkest oxides. From these two primordial elements are generated the two opposing secondaries: green and violet/purple.
This emotional analysis of color is not in opposition to Newtons Optics, but is a complement to the scientific approach.
Another interesting and very useful color treatise, called ‘Synchromism,’ was proposed by Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Check it out. -RQ

Don Cox said...

"as I understand it, complementary relationships are a little different in pigment mixtures than they are in afterimages and other measures of perceptual color response."

Yes. That is what I meant by "not very precise".

Don Cox said...

"are there any specific books you guys could recommend?"

"Color" by Zelanski and Fisher is good.

Justin M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin M. said...

Oops, wrong post.
Don, this book may not help the well read but it will definitely help those who are just getting into the study: Livingstone's "Vision and Art" (from earlier this decade) is thorough yet concise. It does a good job of addressing our perception along side current scientific explanations of optical phenomena. A fun read.

António Araújo said...

>He was not describing phenomena, >he was describing emotion and >psyche.

That is perhaps all that he achieved, but not all he was going for...
He would be very angry with you if you said so much to him! :) His intentions were very explicitly to describe color in much more than a metaphorical / poetic fashion.
He didn't think he was complementing Newton's work, he thought he was showing it was wrong. In fact he was obsessed with showing it.

>This emotional analysis of color >is not in opposition to Newtons >Optics, but is a complement to the >scientific approach.

He very specifically opposed (violently!) Newton's Optics, and made alternative, not complementary (and, it turns out, factually wrong) assertions about color in its physical and physiological components, not just symbolic or poetic. Of course, we may forget those parts and wisely take from his work the more interesting poetic/psychological aspects, but that doesn't change what is there nor his intentions nor his mistakes, and those should be taken into account in our full view of his work. Unfortunately that is not how his work is generally depicted today. I got his book sold to me by a teacher as if I could actually learn color theory from it. The same was said of Itten. When I first got those books I cannot describe how disappointed I was, not for what they are, but for what they are said to be in comparison to what they are. They are not (valid)color theories (in any concrete sense of the term), they are personal musings on color.

More important even is to not forget the people who made the discoveries that are unjustly credited to Goethe because he cited them on his book. Credit should go where it is due. Many times people say "he divided color into (...)" when he just" quoted X's division of color into (...)"

>The main body of the quotation is >actually from W.H. Murray, the >leader of a Scottish expedition in >the Himalayas. Just after the >words, "..could have dreamt would >have come his way," should be the >words, "I have learned a deep >respect for one of Goethe's >couplets:"
>After that come the closing lines, >the only ones actually from >Goethe, "Whatever you can do..."

I could give no better illustration of how Goethe usually gets credit for anything under the sun.

This is not dissing on Goethe, but he has enough going for him without people giving him credit beyond his due or forgetting his follies.


Roberto said...

Yo Omwo: Your response is very well taken, I can appreciate your well considered point-of-view, and it is very important to give appropriate credit where it is due. Thank you for setting the record strait.
Goethe’s relationship with Newton reminds me of Tessla’s relationship with Edison. Edison and Newton were Huge-Brainiacs, but both of them lacked the empathy and sensitivity of their antagonistic and wacky mystical counterparts.
While much of Newton’s observations and contributions to color theory are invaluable to the artist for understanding the optics of color, and by extension the mixing of pigments, he has very little to say about the aesthetic use or treatment of color.
When I first read of Goethe’s ideas about color I didn’t expect that the wacky mystic would have anything to add to Newton’s admittedly comprehensive opus. But what I got was the realization that by simplifying Newton’s color wheel (after mixing my colors with the three primaries) into Goethe’s warm and cool oppositions, I could achieve greater contrasting relationships as I worked out my compositions.

< Goethe, … has enough going for him without people giving him credit beyond his due or forgetting his follies.>

I’d be interested in your views as to what Goethe has going for him.
And as for the forgetting of follies … check this out:
Newton’s occult studies (Wikipedia)

Thanx for the Journey! -RQ

Roberto said...

samX yrreM

António Araújo said...

>I’d be interested in your views as >to what Goethe has going for him.

I wouldn't call them my views, I referred to his reputation. For a start, he is perhaps the greatest figure in german literature (btw, I cannot read German, so I only know the translations and therefore cannot judge properly, all I can say is that I did like his Faust), and the very breadth of his interests is amazing - he tried his hand at philosophy, science, art, it is no wonder that he would make some huge mistakes along the way, it would take someone more than human not to. But he did enough to make him vastly influential in many fields - colour is perhaps one where his influence is not really proportional to his merit, but his general efforts seem impressive (again, "seem" means I am personally ignorant of most of them except by reputation, but I don't expect that the colour fiasco should be the rule, rather I expect that a deserved reputation was extended beyond its real bounds).

>And as for the forgetting of follies >… check this out:
>Newton’s occult studies (Wikipedia

I was aware of that :). I had to smile when you called Goethe the mystic by opposition to Newton, since old Isaac, when not doing physics and mathematics, was arguably quite the basket case. When I first learned physics my teacher insisted that Newton probably spent more time in his alchemical studies and his chronological studies than anything else, and leaning against my copy of his Optiks I keep his "chronology of ancient kingdoms" just for fun. It is refreshing to see both sides of the man. I must add, though, that in the context of the times, some of his weirder studies are not as silly or irrational as they seem today- when you apply a brilliant obsessive mind to the wrong starting assumptions you get a textbook case of "garbage in, garbage out".

So I agree completely, Newton too should not be viewed without regard to his own follies. That doesn't change the fact that with regard to his work in optics, he is the true main source of our current thought, and Goethe failed both to prove him wrong but even to understand him. In that field, Goethe might have wished (as he stated) that his book on colour be seen as his greatest work, but the truth is that Newton is the source of our understanding and Goethe is a curious historical footnote.

As I said, my comments regarded the specific way in which we look at Goethe's work on colour, nothing else, and certainly not some general Goethe vs Newton argument or anything like that, much less some general attack on Goethe on other fields where his reputation is so strong and I, in my ignorance, have no personal reason to doubt it.

António Araújo said...

oh, and though a bit late, Merry Christmas to all who commemorate it (I am not a christian but I do celebrate Santa Claus and, especially, Santa-clad girls - that justifies the whole tradition all by itself! ;)).