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Interesting! Color Theory: Painting Colors With Goethe

Knowledge on mixing colors and using contrast is commonly spread. But there are other color effects, that can’t be explained by most color theory and color wheel info.

Even when I didn’t use color yet, I noticed that a white painted on black gets a different look than a black painted on white. When you paint a semi-transparant white over black, it gets a cold, bluish tone. And when you paint a semi-transparent black over white, it gets a warm, brownish tone. Years later I found, that this phenomenon can be explained by Goethes theory of color.

Goethe doesn’t juggle with wavelengths, atoms or breaking indexes – instead  he consciously uses only his own perception. He found that for color to appear (in for example the atmosphere), you need light, darkness and a transparent form of matter (like air, water, glass etc.). Warm colors (yellow-orange-red) appear when you see darkness before light, and you see blues when, seen from your standpoint, you see light before darkness. In a prisma, it works about the same way.  Check here  for more on color theory

Of course, atoms and wavelengths have a truth of their own. But it’s a machine-truth. We don’t see atoms or wavelengths. Newtons theory of color is good for building color-tv’s, but for art it was a disaster. More than once, I heard my colleague-painters declare color actually doesn’t exist, that it’s a purely subjective phenomenon, an illusion created by the brain. That’s not something an artist can work with. Goethes theory for me was a solution. It actually helped me understand color. With Goethes theory of color you can’t build color tv’s, because it describes the ideal  part of nature itself. But Goethes theory of color is great for artists and graphic designers.

I took some lessons of two watercolorists. They were experts in a method developed by a unique watercolorist (Liane Collot-d’Herbois) who took Goethes knowledge as a basis, and experimented with it to explore the features of every single color. She also found out, that colors don’t have to mix as matter at all. She could bring out a radiant magenta, by using only blue and  yellow paint. The magenta was there for everyone to see.  Even if it was only light, it appeared as if actually painted on. And we all know, you don’t get magenta, when you mix yellow and blue paint – you get green, when you mix yellow and blue.

After my watercolor-lessons, I took this knowledge into oil painting and found it works exactly the same way in oils painting. When you paint a yellow ochre background, and over that a hiding blue (mixed with white), magenta tones are appearing. And if you paint transparant blue over yellow ochre, it will blend into a green.

The interval-effect is fortified by photographic reproduction. I worked a lot with graphic programs, and found that the interval-phenomenon is even stronger when such a picture is reproduced on an LCD-screen, and sometimes extra fortified when you print the picture. Most of the time it occurs as an inexplicable magenta (pink) hue. When you make a picture in black and white, and have very well-balanced tonal values (light and darkness), stripes of green and magenta appear. When they touch, you get blue. This also happens, when you color-copy a black and white picture, with the lid open.

The effect of the interval is not about color mixing as light. It has to do with the effect of darkness or shadow as well. I have spoken about it with a goethean science teacher, he doesn’t understand it yet either. But I’m sure it will be understood some day.

There is still a lot to explore, when it comes to color effects. This is really a kind of science, even if it’s not about machines, and we all know science is a very slow process. But at least now I know, why reds look great when painted on white semi-transparant, and blues look ugly when you paint them that way.

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