Color influences how we see the world in a number of different ways. There are even cultural and biological components to these individual experiences. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Theory of Colors in 1810 and it would become one of the first explorations of how certain colors can create specific functions of psychological reactions when they are viewed.
Much of Goethe’s work was initially rejected by the scientific community. It would, however, find an accepting home within the world of physicists and philosophers.
How Goethe Attempted to Change How We Perceive Color
Many of Goethe’s ideas involved how the use of specific colors could change a person’s mood or emotion. He didn’t have much in the way of evidence to back up his ideas, basing his color theory on his own intuition. His ideas about dark colors, for example, clashed heavily with what science at the time thought of darkness.
According to Goethe, darkness was an active ingredient in color, rather than just being a passive absence of light. “Color itself,” Goethe wrote, “is a degree of darkness.”
Goethe then attempted to assign emotional reactions to various colors. Many of the emotions of colors which he described in his color theory are very similar to how modern science sees human reaction to color. Here are some examples.
Yellow: Goethe suggested that because yellow was the color closest to pure light, it would create an emotional reaction of “brightness” when viewed. It could inspire people to become happier, more peaceful, and even excited about the past, present, and future events that would transpire throughout the day.
Blue: Because blue is darker than yellow, Goethe suggested that it had an element of darkness to it. In his color theory, darkness is also a representation of negativity, just as light is a representation of positivity. For Goethe, blue was therefore a powerful color that could stimulate contemplation because it was a balance of light and darkness.
Red: Goethe associated red with reactions that were akin to jealousy. This is because people who are surrounded by red are often viewed as being superior or more magnificent than others. There is a certain “confidence” that exudes from individuals who are surrounded by this color. Since others would want to obtain this confidence as well, jealously would ensue by its viewers.
Green: This color was looked upon as the perfect expression of quality. Because it is created by mixing yellow (the color of light) with blue (the color of contemplation), it creates a response that is neither powerful, exciting, or induces a jealous reaction. According to Goethe, if you had to stay in a room all day long, the best color that room could be is green because it would allow the individual to focus on themselves instead of reacting to the colors around them.
Mixed Colors and What They Mean to Color Theory
Goethe believed that if you mixed two primary colors together to create a new color, then it could create a different personal reaction when viewed. The same would be true if the colors were not completely mixed together, but instead appearing together. Here are some more examples from the color theory.
Blue-Red: Normally together these two colors would create purple. When they appear together instead of mixed, then a feeling of “unquiet” appears. This feeling can then be exploited because those who are viewing the color would seek out peace due to the degrees of darkness that these two colors portray.
Yellow-Red: When yellow and red appear together, it enhances the excitement that the yellow can produce. It also creates a disturbance within the mind because of the jealously that is often associated with viewing the color red. According to Goethe, this is why animals who viewed these two colors would become so enraged. If that energy could be funneled into something positive when created within a human, then the reaction could create something very positive.
Goethe also indicated in his color theory that the color a person sees first in a combination would influence their reaction to it. If an individual saw red first in a yellow-red combination, then this would create a red-yellow reaction. This would change the reaction from excitement to warmth and joy, according to Goethe, because red-yellow is more representative of fire light.
The same would be true for those who saw red first in a blue and red combination. This would change the reaction to a red-blue reaction, which would create a certain level of disturbed passivity. People would not want to engage with the environment around them with this color, but they would also not want to be there.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s color theory is not a scientific principle, but the ideas published in 1810 helped to lay the groundwork of how we see color today.