Skip to main content
Ages 13+
Under 13
color circle gradient

Goethe's Fascinating Color Theory


Within the unfathomable legacy he left behind, we find a study on the eyes’ reaction to color, which claims that each color is a degree of darkness.

In addition to being an exquisite treaty in which the indescribable is described (the sensation that moves something within us), Goethe’s color theory suggests that we experience the world from an accumulation of primitive reactions we often take for granted. In 1810 he published this treaty on the nature, function and psychology of colors, and although it was dismissed by most of the scientific community at the time, it remained a relevant piece for philosophers, artists and physicists, including figures like Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein.

One of Goethe’s most controversial statements was his rebuttal of Newton’s color-spectrum theory. The German considered that darkness is an active ingredient, as opposed to the mere absence of light. “Color in itself is a degree of darkness”, he wrote. This statement changed the world on metaphysical and figurative levels, indicating that darkness is something vibrant that exists all the time and that light is merely a means to “see it” with our eyes in its different color manifestations. That colors exist independent of light suggests that there is always a latent world of phenomena, whether we perceive these or not.

Just as attempting to describe the taste of something, describing the intimacy of color is one of the most difficult and interesting exercises we can try. Goethe not only succeeded in transmitting, if only momentarily, his understanding of the elusive language of color, but his descriptions come incredibly close to the poetics of the specter.


This is the colour nearest the light. It appears on the slightest mitigation of light, whether by semi-transparent mediums or faint reflection from white surfaces. In prismatic experiments it extends itself alone and widely in the light space, and while the two poles remain separated from each other, before it mixes with blue to produce green it is to be seen in its utmost purity and beauty. How the chemical yellow develops itself in and upon the white, has been circumstantially described in its proper place.

In its highest purity it always carries with it the nature of brightness, and has a serene, gay, softly exciting character.


As yellow is always accompanied with light, so it may be said that blue still brings a principle of darkness with it.

This color has a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye. As a hue it is powerful — but it is on the negative side, and in its highest purity is, as it were, a stimulating negation. Its appearance, then, is a kind of contradiction between excitement and repose.

As the upper sky and distant mountains appear blue, so a blue surface seems to retire from us.

But as we readily follow an agreeable object that flies from us, so we love to contemplate blue — not because it advances to us, but because it draws us after it.

The appearance of objects seen through a blue glass is gloomy and melancholy.


The effect of this color is as peculiar as its nature. It conveys an impression of gravity and dignity, and at the same time of grace and attractiveness.


The eye experiences a distinctly grateful impression from this color. If the two elementary colors are mixed in perfect equality so that neither predominates, the eye and the mind repose on the result of this junction as upon a simple color. The beholder has neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it.

Related Articles