goethe and the colours

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the most influential and prestigious intellectuals of his time. Certainly I’m not the most qualified person to illustrate his work and merit, much less trying to interpret him. Still I would like to highlight some aspects of his work on the nature of colours because they are very present in almost all of the offers on this site.

Goethe conceived his theory from a humanistic and artistic spirit; he worked 40 years on it with the noble purpose of serving artists. It was a gift from one artist to another.

He was the first one to discover that not only darkness but also absolute lightness makes colours disappear. Every single thing that we are able to see depends on both light and dark to be present. This dual interaction was a loyal companion in his work and also a great teacher; observing the edge between light and dark, Goethe found things that Newton overlooked.

For example, Goethe discovered that light is invisible; it can not be seen in an area without physical elements. Light only becomes visible when it hits an object and, in the very moment this happens, darkness shows up as well. The presence of light and darkness gives us the world’s colour palette.

Interesting learning: Light and dark are equal and one depends on the other to exist.

Goethe based his entire theory on a human being as an observer. He noted that when we are caught by the influence of a colour, we instinctively seek balance and harmony by creating a complementary colour. For example, when an object is illuminated with a tone of light, we see the shadow with the complementary color. Consequently he proposed that our vision will always tend towards wholeness and unity.

It makes us think: the harmonic duets (complementary colours) are an expression of our dialogue with nature: the world shows us a colour and we respond with the other half.

Goethe’s colour wheel has only two primary colours: yellow and blue. Yellows are born from the light with the help of darkness; when the light goes away, the yellow turns into red. When absolute darkness receives light, blue shows up; when darkness gives way to light the violet-blue turns into light blue.

The wheel base is formed by the union of two primary colours which produces green, the primary colour of the vegetable world: it all starts with a green sprout. Ascending, the upper end is formed by the polarity between red and blue giving way to magenta, a colour associated with tranquility, peace and harmony.

Certainly, Goethe is the precursor of colour psychology that analyzes the effect of colour on perception and human behavior. But he went further: he showed us that no matter what our cultural background or life experience is, there are qualities behind the colours that make all of us react in the same way, completing the experience by seeking wholeness and unity.

He proposes that we reflect on the qualities of light and darkness because without the presence of both, we could not even distinguish a smile. He called the light-dark relationship “the primordial phenomenon” and said that we should see colours without prejudice and without animosity; if we participate in the experience of watching them as they really are, the colours open and tell us other stories.

On my part, I would like to offer some reflections:

Perhaps the ideas or answers we seek already exist but, as pure light, are invisible; they need something to collide with to show their contours and nuances. It may not be necessary to look for light but rather the object or purpose that we want to illuminate.

Using the analogy, “when the disciple is ready the master appears” we can say, when our prospective clients or purpose are clearly identified, the idea or offer appears. I use this principle in the creation of offers and the results are very flattering.

Talking about offers, like Goethe’s wheel, we can ascend or descend on the meaning of colours as a way to create or share our offers by using more light or darkness: inserting qualities of vitality and movement or properties of peace and quietness. We can even anticipate the response of others, which will always seek harmony.

Our interaction with the colors shows a dual reality in our human nature: on the one hand, an individual aspect, different for each person, linked to our experience and cultural discourse. On the other hand, there is an identical reality in all of us that is predictable, just like a sunrise or a heartbeat. It would be very risky to say that, just like light and darkness, these two aspects can not live without each other but, undoubtedly, to understand this duality can be very useful when creating programs or offers that include human relations.

Goethe saw this clearly two hundred years ago and gave such importance to this knowledge and considered it more important than his “Faust”.

Horacio Camperi