1000 petals by axinia

the only truth I know is my own experience

What do you know about Goethe’s Theory of Colours? March 12, 2009

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!



35 Responses to “What do you know about Goethe’s Theory of Colours?”

  1. yvette Soler Says:

    Love this information. A friend recently told me about a color wheel she created using the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. It showed me yet another way to use the visual imagery of color to tap into a deep spiritual and emotional side of human thought.

    Need Advice? Looking for Inspiration? http://inspirationsfrombinah.yvettesoler.com

  2. Raman Says:

    Well. I agree with Goethe here. I, for one, cannot distinguish between a few dark shades and a few light shades. I do not know what colour is peach or mauve. I can barely make out the difference between Dark Green, Dark Blue and Black.

    Mainly due to my reluctance to differentiate between colours. “What’s the point?” is how I feel.

    • axinia Says:

      Raman, I know some people who can not differentia much between the colour shades, I think even most of the men do not. It also depend on the culture, may be.
      Apparently eskimo who live up in the North, can differnciate between 200 (!!!) shades of white snow…they learn it because it helps them to survive.

      • Raman Says:

        Very true. Same with the colour of crops for a farmer or the colour of sheep for a agrarian. Very True. If your life depended on something, you’ll ensure you know it very well.

  3. people prefer pastel colours when they want to stay neutral and do not want to express their opinion – thi is a new thing for me! and if i sit back and think..its right..thanks a lot for sharing ths

    • axinia Says:

      thanks, that also stroke me- it is so obvious and I never realised it myself, although have been always suspecting something wrong with these pastel colours 🙂

  4. The pastel colours are quite impressive and expressive to me! I prefer such colours when I take shirts. But of late, Iam experimenting with bright stripes or checks, and I seem to be fine with that too 🙂

    Destination Infinity

  5. It’s correct, Axinia, the perception of colours does vary across cultures. Just take a look at world flags and a pattern emerges. The flags of Europe and countries with European influence in the New World all use similar colours. The flags of Middle East/North African countries use similar colours. Other African flags use colours that are very similar to each other. The flags of East Asian countries use similar colours.

    I think there is a noticeable difference between the colours preferred by Northern and Southern Europeans too. North Europeans (and countries with North European influence in North America and Oceania) tend to prefer “paler” colours. South Europeans and Latin Americans tend to prefer more “expressive” colours. It makes me wonder if the climate of a place has an influence on the colours that are liked by the people 😕

  6. axinia Says:

    RAj, climate definetely matters. If people see less colours aroudn in the nature, they will less probably implement them in their dress. On the other hand they have wonderful red houses in Sweden… As for me, I preffer to wear bright colours also cebause everything is so pale around.

  7. swaps Says:

    “…people prefer pastel colours when they want to stay neutral and do not want to express their opinion.”

    So true…a friend of mine likes to remain neutral, he always wears black shoes and black trousers.

  8. Sahaja Says:

    Ohh I never knew this though I heard about Goethe….

    and i dont know abt neutral colors, to me everything is colorful!

    personally i love, baby yellow, baby pink and baby blue! umm i like cream too! u wud find cream and maroon combinations in my wadrobe in like100 varities of those color combinations!

  9. swaps Says:

    “Color effects are in the eye of the beholder. Yet the deepest and truest secrets of color effect are. I know, invisible even to the eye, and are beheld by the heart alone. The essential eludes conceptual formulation.

    Itten. Johannes (1970) The Elements of color (Kunst Der Farbe).

    Some years ago I had begun to question if we all really saw the SAME colour or we just agreed about their names??
    But that way a painting or a photo could never evoke the same feeling in us…..but they DO! Only on reading the above quote I realized why we do see(perceive) the same colours.

  10. Dear Axinia,

    I’m afraid I’m the only one to post against what is stated here.
    I do not get the idea behind what Goethe’s theory says. I rather refute it, if I were allowed to do that in my little capacity.

    If you start talking in terms of perception, then all elements in classical physics – time, gravity, speed, and so on, would look different to different people. A person seeing a car speeding towards him to hit him would gauge the danger differently from, say, a train coming at him at the same speed. That’s perception for you !! I’m reminded of shakespearean lines from ‘As you like it’ (and i’ll just put a rough transaltion here for the lack of remembering them; the lines were beautiful by the way): it said something like ‘to a prisoner who is going to the gallows, time is a horse that gallops; to a bride who is anxious to meet her beloved, time is a horse that trots’..and so on.. that too is perception.

    Probably the only difference is that with things like time, speed, gravity, etc, it is possible to measure them and quanitfy them. Like we know about speed not just in terms of fast or slow but also how fast or how slow: whether it is 25 miles per hour or 125 miles per hour. In case of colours, we don’t readily have a quantified understanding (although the intensity can be measured but we don’t think in those terms usually when we look at a colour) and hence the perception and argument looks logical. I don’t think there is too much to it.

    Newton found the 7 constituent colours of white light. That’s an unchallenged breakthrough. Ofcourse, depending on infinte permutations and combinations of these 7 pigments, one can create all shades possible, even each of those 200 shades of snow that an eskimo needs to identify (as one has commented earlier) Whether we are able to identify one shade from another depends on our human capacity to do so; that capacity differs from person to person, mood to mood, and time to time.

    I go with Newton on this one 🙂
    Comments are welcome..


    • Raman Says:

      Hi Vaibhav,

      Thanks for the Shakesphere Stuff – More comprehensive than Einstein on Time Relativity!

      But I am not sure I understand why you are against – you seem to enjoy the Shakesphere & Physics examples you have given.

      Again, whether Goethe’s discoveries have a utilitarian example or not – it is a discovery for sure. I am sure you would agree with this too. Just that we may not use the theory in our day-to-day life. But that does not take away the truth in the theory. In fact, the penultimate line of your reply sums up the post very beautifully.

      Both Newton & Goethe have done stellar work – it is for us to pick what we like.

      Sorry for jumping the gun on Axinia.

    • swaps Says:

      Hello Vaibhav,
      Thanks for your different views, this post appears in better relief. What you say is true, but in a classical sense. But this post is about the modern views.

      Let’s see what perception is…imagine a ball going around in a circle. Now consider its projection, the projection is linear!! So is the ball doing a circle or a straight line…it is left to your perception as per the dimension you choose to see it in 🙂

      Likewise, this world we perceive in 3 or 4 dimensions is not to be confused with the real world that is supposed to have 11 dimensions (hyper space).

      The genius of Goethe lies in his modern thinking. Indeed, he is considered the most intelligent human being ever!

  11. Raman,

    You miss my point completely.

    Perceptions are perfectly fine. All I said was that such immeasureable ideas needn’t be presented as a “new scientific theory”. Science ought not to be careless enough to put everything under the vague garb of ‘perception’. It has just enough room for measurable, verifiable opinions, lest poets and scientists should become alike in their works. (For Goethe’s theory to be accepted, it should categorically prove that colours are not about 7 pigments alone, as Newton said, but about infinite colours, or something like that. To say that ‘the colours we see depends on how brain processes it’ is like simply leaving the theory hanging loosely, rather poetically, but not in the least, scientifically). I tried to explain that using the Shakespearean example that the same timespan can look different to different people (based on their position and perception) but still, science is capable of identifying this certain time period, in precise, quantifiable terms (regardless of the beholder’s ‘feeling’ about it – that’s the point) So time is not as vague an entity as colour would become if Goethe’s theory were supposed to hold water.
    As far as I can see, that’s not the case.


    PS: My only contention is that just like Newton could never write as good poetry/essays/philosophy as Goethe did, it would be rather harsh on Newton if we hold too high an opinion about a theory that doesn’t have any proof, nor too many friends in the scientific community.

    PS 2: I have always felt that art is like a lenient teacher that allows it’s students to think freely, whereas science is like this tough master who requires its students to deal in clear, specific terms. Both are excellent teachers considering the kind of pupils they produce, who strive to reach the truth walking on different roads. Ofcourse the roads run into each other many a time, as if purposefully, to cause confusions. It looks like a beautiful understanding of life and its ways.

    PS 3: May be I wrote a lil longer than needed. *apologies, if required* 😉
    I think I have a very big liking for both art and science, but I don’t mind taking strong stands on issues though.

    Comments are welcome.

    • Raman Says:

      Hi Vaibhav,

      Now I get your point – If I am right, you are saying that Goethe’s argument is not quantifiable, whereas Newton’s is. And therefore, while there may be elements of truth in Goethe’s theory, it must not be admitted into the realm of Science.

      I accpet your opinions, it is a very fair argument.

      My opinion about science is limited to the theory that what seems acceptable to the mind is categorized as science. As we all know, when light is refracted through a Prism, we would be able to see a spectrum of colours that is broadly classfied as VIBGYOR. However, we are not bothered about the area, for e.g., right between Orange & Red. If we look into the spectrum in detail, there are a million colours, which we group and classify under the broad 7 called VIBGYOR. Therefore, irrespective of Goethe, it is true that there are millions of colours and it is also true that we have, as a general practice, accepted the 7 main colours. Check this out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colours. You should know that Indigo, as a colour was proposed by Newton but till date, most people do not distinguish it, and most color scientists do not recognize it as a separate color.

      You would also enjoy the colour theory: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_theory.

      Coming to the point that Perception of a Colour may be different for different people, you should check out the following links:

      And of course there is the theory that we recognize red as “red” because we were told that it was “red”. Otherwise, we could have well called red “blue” or vice versa. Therefore it is someone’s perception that has become generally accepted and therefore has assumed the posture of truth. This is an interesting article on that: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_naming

      Then we could very well leave everything to “Maya” and relax. 🙂

  12. axinia Says:

    Hello gentlemen,
    thanks a lot for this wonderful discussion, I am enjoying a lot reading your intelligent arguments!

  13. swaps Says:

    I wonder what Goethe would have said of ‘pink slips’.

      • Swap,

        Not the right time really to talk about pink slips, is it?? You scare us 😀

        Bring up something more lively; let us move from ‘pink slips’ to……..’blue whales’, may be 😉 coz I remember a kiddie once asking me whether a blue whale is really blue in colour 😉 and I know how tough it was to explain that it isn’t as blue as the shiny blue crayon in her colour box but some bluish-grey sort of skin colour. Just shared for fun.. 🙂

        So much about colours, eh ! 🙂 Both Newton and Goethe would be shaking hands in heaven.. 😀

    • Raman Says:

      He would have advised people to not get into the “blue mood” 🙂

  14. swaps Says:

    Somethings cannot be explained, they must be just accepted….

  15. swaps Says:


    Do see his paintings….because the essential eludes conceptual formulations

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