Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – The mastermind of colour theory

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) didn’t only occupy himself with literature but also natural science and had a holistic approach to his observations on colour. His book “On Colour theory” was first published in 1810 by Cotta Publishing House. He considered this book, the most comprehensive one of all his works, as more important than his literary works. In this book, he sheds light at the phenomenon of colour in its entirety from different angles. It was important to him to describe the development of colours from the angle of natural sciences but also explain the psychological and aesthetic aspects of colours and how his findings could be used in painting.

Goethe was of the opinion that colours are on the border between light and darkness. The colour yellow is “by the light at first”, while blue is “by the darkness at first”. His point of view that colours arise from dimness was in stark contrast to Newton’s scientific findings regarding the spectral colours that white light is made up of. This is the main reason Goethe’s colour theory is partially met with refusal.

Yellow and blue, to Goethe, were the two pure colours that he based his colour theory on. He also noticed that purple (red) cannot be mixed from other colours. Hence, yellow, blue and red were the pure colours to him. He juxtaposed these three colours with their complementary colours violet, orange and green in his colour circle. This colour circle starts with red at the top, green is right across at the bottom.

That part of the circle that goes from red to yellow was the “plus side” for Goethe: yellow, red-yellow (orange), yellow-red (minium, vermilion). These colours “put you in an active, lively, striving mood”. The second part of the circle, which goes from red to blue, was the “minus side”: blue, red-blue and blue-red. These colours “make you feel restless, soft and longing”.

“Just the way yellow always bears something light in it, blue always bears something dark.”

Goethe described the “sensual-ethical” and aesthetic impact of the individual colours of his colour circle and also explained the meaning and impact of combinations of colours. This holistic observation of colour was of big importance to Goethe. In his “historic observations”, he also made reference to colours in clothing, “the character of colours in clothing is applied to the character of the person. Hence, the relationship of the individual colours and combinations to the colour of the face, age and status can be observed.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s work hat great influence on colour theory and also colour type theory.

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