We all know Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) as the greatest of Germany’s poets (comparable to Shakespeare and Dante). But he was not only that! Goethe was also an avid amateur scientist and displayed through his careful observations and his keen, what might now be called phenomenological, mind an ability to discern the depth of the phenomenon in question. As we all learned Newton’s theory of colour formation. at school, it was very interesting for me to discover that there was a contradiction to it, a contradiction made by a poet!
Goethe, being fascinated by the colours generated from the prism conducted his own investigations and found to his great surprise that Newton’s colour theory was, if not incorrect, but rather mechanical in nature and based on an “interpretation” of the phenomenon rather than the truth as it stands.
Goethe’s Colour Wheel
His 1,400-page treatise on color Theory of Colours ( Zur Farbenlehre) was published in 1810. The work comprises three sections: i) a didactic section in which Goethe presents his own observations, ii) a polemic section in which he makes his case against Newton, and iii) a historical section. It contains some of the earliest and most accurate descriptions of phenomena such as coloured shadows, refraction, and chromatic aberration.
Goethe reformulates the topic of color in an entirely new way. Newton had viewed color as a physical problem, involving light striking objects and entering our eyes. Goethe realizes that the sensations of color reaching our brain are also shaped by our perception — by the mechanics of human vision and by the way our brains process information. Therefore, according to Goethe, what we see of an object depends upon the object, the lighting and our perception.
In fact, Goethe’s theory is being widely used today but only few of us are aware of his discovery (reminds me of a story with Nicola Tesla).
What I personally liked about this theory is the Goethes’s explanation of the pastel colours: people prefer pastel colours when they want to stay neutral and do not want to express their opinion. He noticed that in so called “primitive” folks (please mind his time and culture!!) people love bright clear colours, and only in Europe they preferred the pastel ones…Basically nothing changed since the 18th century: We still see pale Westerners wearing pastel and dark colours, fearing pink, red and yellow for it may be “too much of a statement”. I remember a friend asking me if I feel comfortable enough to wear my pink coat because it is too expressive…
What to say to that? I better answer with the words of the great Goethe:
Should your glance on mornings lovely
Lift to drink the heaven’s blue
Or when sun, veiled by sirocco,
Royal red sinks out of view –
Give to Nature praise and honor.
Blithe of heart and sound of eye,
Knowing for the world of colour
Where its broad foundations lie.
LOVE, and enjoy colours!