Presentation _ Goethe’s color theory

As a color theorist, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s color wheel was influenced by Issac Newton’s color wheel, in terms of the shape, which was the first circular wheel in history.

Taking Newton’s idea on basis, Goethe focused more on emotional/psychological aspects of our experience about color. In his book “Theory of colours”, he wrote about his ideas in two categories.

_ Influence of our emotion, psychological mechanism when our brain interprets color.

_ Certain colors or color combination that could create a certain feeling/atmosphere.

In the first category, it is said that experience of color is subjective depending on our mental conditions. For instance, One of the phenomena that he studied was after-image. It is the most well-known visual experience that shows how complementary can exist and make sense to us. Goethe thought that the concept of complementary color doesn’t exist only because it’s already given in nature, but because through this kind of psychological mechanism, people came to give it a meaning, find examples from nature and finally make use of it. His way to look at color was very much human-oriented.

In the second category, first, he suggested the concept of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ colors. Positive can be also said as ‘Warm’. Colors in this area are drawn from yellow, which Goethe thought of as the lightest, warmest color. ‘Negative’ is cold, and colors in it are from blue, the darkest, coldest in his perspective. Starting from this idea, he suggested three types of color combination that create certain atmosphere: powerful, gentle and radiant.

_ Powerful : positive + positive – lively, active, warm

_ Gentle : negative + negative – calm, anxious, cold

_ Radiant : positive + negative (almost like complementary relationship) – stimulating, tension, energetic

To maximize practical use of his idea, I came up with this color wheel below. There are two color wheels put together, the one inside rotates so that we can match it with the outer wheel in different color combination. Also, where the two wheels face each other, positive hues have a triangular angle toward each other, negative ones have it in the opposite way. And I added one more concept, neutral, which is magenta and yellow-green because they don’t look totally positive or negative. Therefore, they are just in normal circular shape.

In the sketch, there is icons explaining how to read this color wheel.

_ angles overlapping : powerful color combination

_ angles pointing away from each other : gentle

_ angles fitting each other : radiant

_ one angle + no angle : in transition toward one of three


3 thoughts on “Presentation _ Goethe’s color theory

  1. Pingback: Goethe – the psychology of colour | Visual Communication

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