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Theory of Goethe

Theory of Goethe

How do colors affect us? The origins of colors psychology.

The 18th century was marked with Newton’s discoveries in the scientific field of light and its attributes. It was an age where the developments in philosophy and science were the focus of modern society. It was then that color psychology took on its current form and became the ground for countless advancements.

Zur Farbenlehre

Historical discoveries like the documented effects of light led to the shaping of the digital as we currently know it. Of course, any notable discovery stands on the shoulders of a person with extraordinary talent. For color psychology, that was the renowned german poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Previous to Goethe no one had attempted to scientifically link colors and emotions. His book “Theory of Color” aimed to explain the sensual effects the visual spectrum can have on the human mind.

Despite being strongly underestimated and humiliated by other researchers for his theories, Goethe considered his work on the book as his most valued one, regardless of his current success in other fields.

A curious fact is that even to this day, Goethe’s views have not lost relevance. His research and conclusions involving the links between the human psychology and colors became a reference point for many respected man and artists from the likes of Georg Hegel, Wassily Kandinsky, Н. Боbр, Aleksei Losev, Max Lüscher & more.)

The great writer didn’t share the same enthusiasm as the rest of the world did about Newton’s views. According to Goethe, the very crucial and emotional side of the subject was being completely ignored by the coeval intellectual circles.

Goethe always kept the individual emotional effects of colors on focus. This pushed his theories enough for them to prevail in the scientific field since the days of Newton. With time, his discoveries had been improved and modified upon, but they managed to preserve their original purpose.

While Newton conducted his research with a disregard for the human eye, Goethe described his views from the point of the eye’s experience of colors.

There is no denial that we live in a world drowned in visual content. Just you, reading this article, is a prime example of that. Your decisions are also somewhat influenced by those that can represent your values in the most attractive way. The way psychology of colors encompasses the art of persuasion is truly remarkable.

We are all in fact surrounded by the various applications and improvements of Goethe’s theories. A circumstance, which becomes even more noteworthy when you think about the fact that his work was regarded as an amateurish fairy tail by the higher societies during his time.

Goethe delivered in full measure what was promised by the title of his excellent work:  Data for a Theory of Color.

They are important, complete and a significant data rich material for a future theory of color.

He has not, however, undertaken to furnish the theory itself; hence, as he himself remarks and admits on page [ XXXIX ] of the introduction, he has not furnished us with a real explanation of the essential nature of color, but really postulates it as a phenomenon, and merely tells us how it originates, not what it is.

The physiological colors he represents as a phenomenon, complete and existing by itself, without even attempting to show their relation to the physical colors, his principal theme. ... it is really a systematic presentation of facts, but it stops short at this.

— Arthur Schopenhauer

On Vision and Colors


Goethe's Color Wheel

If you are someone who spends time on the internet, it is likely that you have encountered the image of a circle representing the visible spectrum of colors. This was how Goethe saw and illustrated the natural order of the visible spectrum.

This illustration was the first ever documented attempt to link the hue and brightness of colors to a unique emotional state.

Goethe associated red with the "beautiful", orange with the "noble", yellow to the "good", green to the "useful", blue to the "common", violet to the "unnecessary". These six attributes were then assigned to four categories of human cognition.

The rational Vernunft , to the beautiful and the noble red and orange.

The intellectual Verstand , to the good and the useful yellow and green.

The sensual Sinnlichkeit, to the useful and the common green and blue.

Lastly and closing the circle was the imagination Phantasie connected to both the unnecessary and the beautiful purple and red.

Goethe believed that the prolonged exposure to a specific color would restrict the viewer’s mentality, which by itself is constantly looking to achieve equilibrium. The control of colors over our mood occurs regardless of the material they belong to.

These same beliefs foresaw some of the greatest scientific sensations of the 20th century neurology. They managed to describe the role our vegetative nervous system plays on our daily lives.

Light and Darkness

One of the key principles in Goethe’s system was the existence of an ever-present balance. He described luminosity as something inseble from darkness. In contrast to his colleagues, Goethe viewed darkness not as a state absent of light, but rather as a way to interact with light. The a result from these interactions were colors.

For Goethe, light was "the simplest most undivided most homogenous being that we know. Confronting it is the darkness".

“Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity, or if a more general expression is preferred, light and its absence, are necessary to the production of colour… Colour itself is a degree of darkness.”

The active and positive colors like Red, Orange and Yellow will enhance their effects when in the presence of Black. The contrast between luminosity and darkness amplifies our impression of them. Retrospectively, Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness.

Contrary to the positive colors, the negative side of the spectrum takes strength from its interaction with White. If we take colors like Azure, Blue and Violet the situation is the opposite, as they are closer to the complete darkness. Their presence will fade out from not having enough energy to maintain contrast when surrounded by a darker environment. Blue is the darkness weakened by light.

As to what I have done as a poet... I take no pride in it... but that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours—of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many.

— Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

as recalled by Johann Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe


Goethe transformed colors from a mystic and unknown mechanism of nature to the symbol of the human mind itself. A symbol of his feelings, thoughts and decisions.

Goethe’s work on color psychology held a vital importance for the future of the field, regardless of the overwhelming criticism towards his ideas during that time.

His thoughts on the artistic approach in combination with his belief that the subjective is important, allowed Goethe to precisely analyse the thin relations between the nature of colors and our mind.