Color Theory Basics

Welcome to the color theory basics of Goethe. Most of us were taught Newton’s theory of color. Which is great for building color-tv's. But creatives are better off with Goethes color theory. It explains the 'mood' of colors in a logical way. At the same time, it explains why warm colors look good when painted on white, and cold colors don't. This color theory applies to both art and interior painting, it's about the basics of visual perception. Click here for a:

Light and darkness

In Goethe's theory, 'light' and 'darkness' are the actual color theory basics. Light and darkness are immaterial but visible qualities. We can perceive them with our own senses. That doesn't mean color is a subjective thing. It's physical - just not always material (scroll down for more on light an darkness).
Goethe's color theory basics in short: color is created when light and darkness interact, within in a transparant form of matter (like air, glass, or water).

Blues: active light, passive darkness

blues

We see blue, when we see the light as it appears before a darker background. On a clear day, we have a transparant atmosphere full of light, against the background of the dark cosmos. With 'blues' I mean: everything between a light turquoise and a dark blue-violet.

blues

Reds: active darkness, passive light

reds

In reds, we see darkness before a light. The light comes through from behind. Close to the earth, the atmosphere is filled with dust and moisture. When the sun sets, it shines through ever thicker layers of dust-filled atmosphere - going from yellow, to orange, to red.

reds

In a prisma, it works about the same way.

Looking through a prisma

When you look into a prisma, you see an image that is pulled towards a certain direction. The prisma moved the image and puts it somewhere else. The colored edges show you in which direction.

In the prisma, you see colored edges on places where a dark and a light spot are bordering.

  • on places where a dark spot was pushed into a light spot, you see a red-orange-yellow edge.
  • On the other side, where the dark spot moved away and a light spot pushed into a dark spot, you see the blue-violet edge

As you noticed: there's no green here. There are rainbow colors, but not a full rainbow. Only when these two colored edges touch either green or magenta will appear. Click here for more on green and magenta.

Looking through a prisma

Light was pushed into darkness.

Light took terrain, darkness pulled back.

Looking through a prisma

Darkness was pushed into light.

Darkness took terrain, light pulled back.

Goethe’s color theory basics in short:

  • Yellows, oranges and reds are active darkness, passive light, darkness being active towards or before the light. Reds are about darkness, showing its activity with the help of a passive light
  • Turquoises, blues and violets are: active light, passive darkness, Light pushing into the darkness. Blues are about active light, appearing with the help of a passive darkness

Is this confusing?

That's normal! Give it some time. This theory requires a major shift in your thinking habits, you have to grow a neural network for it. Most of us are used to thinking in invisible but material concepts (atoms, wavelengths etcetera), and this theory is based on light and darkness - immaterial, yet visible concepts. Just take it in, forget about it, and get back to it in a few weeks - then you'll probably understand without effort.

These color theory basics are probably different from those you've learned (Newtons). But: Newton formulated his color theory basics on one experiment with a prisma, that represents only a fraction of all the possible effects you can create with a prisma: he put one very thin stripe of light (surrounded by lots of darkness) through a prisma, to reproduce the rainbow colors (click here for more on that). His credit is, that he made color manipulable (so we can build color tv's.). But that doesn't help you as an artist.

One truth (wavelengths, atoms) doesn't exclude the other (light and darkness), it's just a different angle. The angle of 'light and darkness' enables you to feel your way into the character of a color. At the same time, it explains the way color behaves in painting.

  • Burgundy
    A very dark red (burgundy, carmine) - Darkness, that inhibits a bit of light, as if it's pregnant. It has eaten or swallowed the light and is digesting it.

  • Vermillion red
    A medium red: darkness pushing through into the light, turning itself inside out, as if it's being born. Therefore the active and coming-on-strong appearance.

  • Yellow
    Imagine yellow as darkness that pushed completely through, becoming a light-spreader itself, and you understand its joyous and radiating power.

  • Turquoise
    Turquoise is about lots of light, caught in a very clear and transparent matter: water or ice. It keeps most of the light to itself (as in intellectual or pleasure-giving activities).

  • Cobalt blue
    Cobalt blue is about moderated light, meeting the darkness halfway, generously creating space. It represents the ability to plainly see things the way they are - no more, no less. But this veil of normality also maintains our physical health.

  • Violet
    In violet, the light goes deep into the darkness, untill it's almost completely dimmed. As if it wants to actually see and understand the darkness.

Light and darkness here doesn't mean 'good and evil'. Eventually, light and darkness can be connected to human qualities like "consciousness" (light) and "will" (darkness). Here, will is about the power that physically moves us. Click here for more on color psychology. This theory is also a basis for several forms of art therapy (like the Collot-d'Herbois method, used for treating physical conditions)

These color theory basics apply to all kinds of painting.

In landscape painting techniques it helps you to paint skies. And in interior painting techniques, this knowledge is invaluable. Blue paint gets more radiating, more 'light', when you add white to it, and red paint looses its glow when you add white to it. Adding white to red makes it go material: a brick- or skintone. Also in oil painting techniques, this knowledge can help you to bring your colors to life.

Paint layers

Goethes color theory basics even explain how paint colors (white incluced) affect each other, when you paint one layer over the other. In wall painting techniques, you usually paint a darker color over a lighter one (or the other way around).
Painting a pure red (darker) over off-white (lighter), makes the red look really brilliant. That goes for oranges, browns and yellows too, it makes them active, warm and glowy. For more on red paint colors, click on it.
But if you paint a pure medium-dark blue over white, it tends to look off and smudgy, because it's not in line with the nature of blue. Blue can radiate when you paint it on a dark background. You can help the blue, by adding white to it, or do a grey primer first. Click here for more on blue paint colors..

red sky

Viridian green

red sky

Magenta

Magenta and green

Magenta and green are special colors, because they're not a result of light-over-darkness or darkness-over-light, like reds and blues. They appear in the prisma, where reds and blues touch each other. They bring 'light' and 'darkness back into balance, each in their own way. Green and magenta both give a balanced and 'still' impression. They don't push, pull or move you, like the other rainbow colors do

Green almost never appears in the sky - that is, in natural situations. Only sometimes, as a 'green flash' at sunrise. You also see a green hue in the sky, just before a thunderstorm is about to blast out. Northern light often is green too. The last two phenomena are connected with lots of electric tension.

Magenta appears quite often in the atmosphere, when blues and reds are both present - in for example a sunset. In cold weather - winter, or early morning, magenta often is stronger present than in warm weather conditions.

Light and Darkness

We can only see things, when there is transparant matter: air, water, glass. Absolute light and darkness are both invisible. When there’s only light or only darkness, you can’t see a thing. And outsideof our atmosphere there’s utter darkness, even when the sun is shining. On the moon, there is no “day”, only a strongly lit ground.

Our atmosphere is the carrier of our day, our light. The sun is visible through it, as the source of this light, but we don’t see the sun itself. We see how it evokes the light. And this atmosphere is breathing. It has layers - thicker and thinner ones. Especially the layer we live in is strongly influenced by warmth. When the sun goes up, it warms the earth, the air goes up, spreading all moisture and dust and creating transparancy. We have light and we see blue.

When the sun goes down, the earth cools down too. Dust and moisture come back to earth, and cause darkening. Behind that layer, there are vast kilometers of thin, clear atmosphere: light. Hence the red sunsets.

Atmosphereal colors interact

In the atmosphere, colors interact freely. Once colors become manifest, they interact. The world of color is a whole, it’s striving for completion all the time. If there’s one color, it will summon up its counterpart by contrast. Once there are contrasting colors, they will summon up a third color by interval.

In painting, these effects occur too, if you help your colors a little. Colors need a certain balance or freedom, some space to breathe, a proper light- or darkness. You can use the 'rules' of the color scheme to keep our colors more or less atmosphereal. But more important is, to follow your nose. A good taste in color is just like a good taste for healthy food. Knowing some color theory basics can also help to understand about what's healthy. But in the end, you choose first. Rules are good for understanding those choices, and support them.

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