Complementary colors suggest an opposition of elemental principles, like fire and ice. Blue opposes *yellow; red challenges green. These antagonistic pairings seem to correspond to the way our visual systems are wired.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book Theory of Colors (Zur Farbenlehre) was published in 1810. It’s is not so much a scientific theory as a catalog of observations about the experience of color vision.
Based on his first-hand experience, he believed that color arose from the interaction between light and darkness. Darkness is not the absence of light, but rather its rival or counterpart. Blue, he believed, is a lightening of black. Yellow is a darkening of white. All other colors are grouped between them.
Goethe looked for chromatic effects at places where light and dark edges intersect, such as along the edges of dark mullions crossing bright windows. He noticed that if we stare at a strong red color and then look at a white wall, a green afterimage emerges.
He arranged the color wheel with the symmetrical six-color spacing that we’re familiar with today. Opposing pairs of hues line up across the center. Yellow and red were at the “plus” side of the color wheel, and they represent “light, brightness, force, warmth, and closeness." Color schemes where yellow, red, and purple predominate, he believed, bring forth feelings of radiance, power, and nobility.
Blue, he believed, stands for "deprivation, shadow, darkness, weakness, coldness, and distance.” The colors on the cold or “minus” side evoke feelings of dread, yearning, and weakness. “Colors are the deeds of light,” he declared, “its deeds and sufferings.”
His views were at odds with the objective scientific principles of Sir Isaac Newton, which didn’t take into account the human observer. Goethe was more concerned with our response to light and color in physiological, moral, and spiritual terms.
Some of his ideas about color pairings have been echoed in the modern opponent process theory of color vision, which states that all colors that we see are the result of interactions between pairs of color receptors.
But his greatest contribution was to inspire generations of artists, including J.M.W. Turner and even Ludwig van Beethoven.
(*Note: in our perception of color, blue opposes yellow, but in pigments, orange would be the complement)
William Turner. Snow Storm: Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps. 1812. From Olga's Gallery
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