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Lesson 9 - Goethe's color theory

Goethe's color theory

While we owe a great deal of what we know about colors to the english physician Isaac Newton, we owe even more to the German poet and nature scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Isaac Newton had discovered that by projecting a beam of white light through a prism onto a wall, a spectrum was created. He concluded that all colors were contained in white light. This is a presumption that have lived on and on, and still today it's sometimes taken for a fact. However, Goethe wanted to test the accuracy of Newton's experiments, so he borrowed a prism and looked at a white wall through it. He expected to see a spectrum, as Newton suggested, by he didn't see nothing at all. Not until he turned around to the window, where he saw a spectrum appearing around the crossbars. Goethe concluded that colors are only created when light and darkness meets.

This was just the beginning of Goethe's forty year long color study. Goethe created an advanced color theory based on the human being as observer. He classified color into three groups - physiological, physical, and chemical.

The first part, the physiological colors, are the colors that the human eye makes up. If you look at a single colored piece of paper for a long time, and then turn your attention to a white paper, you will see colors. These are the colors closest to the human being, they are created by ourselves, and Goethe classified them as the nr. 1 important color.

The physical colors are experienced through more or less see-through mediums, which in themselves are colorless. The spectrum that we see on a screen from a prismatic experiment, don't belong to the screen. If we remove it, the spectrum disappears from the screen. The physical colors are of a more permanent character than the physiological, but not as permanent as the last category.

The chemical colors belong to an object permanently. The colors of i.e a football belong to this category. Since chemical colors belong to an object, Goethe puts them at the lowest level in the hierarchy, as it's the color most far away from the human being. When we kick the ball, there's no doubt in our minds that the colors of the ball follow with it. It's a permanent color.

One of the, for us computer people, potentially most interesting discoveries Goethe made though, was a new set of colors Newton had never found. When looking at the crossbars of the window he saw the colors Newton had seen, but he also saw several others as well. The colors Newton had discovered are the colors we think of as RGB colors. The additional colors Goethe discovered, however, are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow - CMY. Goethe constructed a color circle including both these color sets (figure 1).
Figure 1

Goethe's color circle


In this color circle, the complementaries are positioned on each side of the circles diameter. You can see that for example cyan is the complementary color of red. Goethe considered each part of the color circle separately. He considered the left part as the yellow part of the color circle. Here you find the warm colors, the colors of the day. On the right side - the blue side - we find the cool colors, the colors of night. The color circle also demonstrates another fundamental phenomenon. If you pour a yellow liquid into a stair shaped container, you will see that each step of the container looks more red than the previous. The color increases. You will also see this when you do something as pour a cup of coffee. When there's just a little coffee, the color is not so dark - light brown rather - but the more coffee you pour, the darker it gets, until it gets almost black by the time the cup is full. Therefore you find light yellow under the darker reds, and light cyan under the darker blues in the color circle.

While Newton insisted that colors were created only from light, Goethe discovered that there had to be darkness present as well. You can't observe a beam of light without darkness, and you can't observe a beam of darkness without light. If you project a light beam with darkness in the middle onto a mirror, you will see that not only the light is reflected, but also the darkness. Many argue that darkness is just the absence of light (which you might very well mean as well), but Goethe did not agree. We know that we can only see light when it hits something. The reason we are able to see this wonderful planet we live on, is that the light is reflected against all the bits and pieces of our planet. In space, light is everywhere, but since there's absolutely nothing there for the light to hit, we can't see it. We see that light is invisible in the absence of particles or material to reflect against. This can also be demonstrated by shooting a beam of light through a transparent box with holes in each side in a smokey room. When the holes aren't covered, you can see the beam of light since it hits the smoke particles, but when the holes are covered with glass plates, so that the smoke can't get in, the beam of light passes through the box without being visible. Since the box is empty (has no smoke particles), the light inside it is invisible. It will however continue on the other side of the box, when it hits smoke again.

Goethe also did a good job of describing what's happening to the sky when the sun is setting. The atmosphere contains of lots of little particles of ash and coal, and when darkness meets light in this layer, colors are born. When it's daytime we see the white sun as a bright yellow. This color is created when the sunlight hits the particles of the atmosphere with the light of the sun as background. The thicker the layer of particles is, the redder the color of the sun seems.

When the sun is at its summit, we see it through a pretty thin layer, and it appears bright yellow. When the sun sets however, the angle at which the light hits the earth, makes it pass a thicker layer of ash and coal. This results in a redder color (figure 2). This is really just the same as when you pour that cup of coffee, just on another scale entirely. When we see the blue sky, we really see the atmosphere with the darkness of space as background. When the sun hits the particles of the layer, with dark as background, the color blue is created. The thinner the layer, the darker the blue. To summarize: Yellow colors are created when darkness meets light with light as background, while blue colors are created when darkness meets light with darkness as background.

Figure 2

Looking out in space



Goethe was a true genius who devoted forty years of his life to colors. It is impossible to explain all his discoveries on this small site, and if you need to know more about his color theory, I suggest you start searching the net. Enigmation's coverage of Goethe ends here.


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