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Encyclopedia > Theory of Colours

Theory of Colours (original German title, Zur Farbenlehre) is a book published by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1810. It contains some of the earliest and most accurate descriptions of coloured shadows, refraction, dioptrical colours, and achromatism/hyperchromatism. A number of physicists, including Werner Heisenberg, Hermann von Helmholtz, and Mitchell Feigenbaum have been fascinated by Goethe's theory. Feigenbaum was convinced that 'Goethe had been right about color!'. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ▶ (help· info) (IPA: ) (pronounced GER tuh)(28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832) was a German novelist, dramatist, poet, humanist, scientist, philosopher, and for ten years chief minister of state at Weimar. ... 1810 was a common year starting on Monday (see link for calendar). ... // Headline text This article refers to refraction in waves. ... Chromatic aberration is caused by the dispersion of the lens material, the variation of its refractive index n with the wavelength of light. ... Werner Heisenberg Werner Karl Heisenberg (December 5, 1901 – February 1, 1976) was a celebrated German physicist and Nobel laureate, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. ... Hermann von Helmholtz Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (August 31, 1821 – September 8, 1894) was a German physician and physicist. ... Mitchell Jay Feigenbaum (born December 19, 1944; Philadelphia, USA) is a mathematical physicist whose pioneering studies in chaos theory led to the discovery of the Feigenbaum constant. ...


Goethe considered his own theory to be a more general explanation of color, with Issac Newton's observations being special cases[1]. While Newton's theory of colors remains dominant among the physics community, developments in understanding how the brain interprets colours, e.g., color constancy and Edwin Land's Retinex theory, bear striking similarities to Goethe's theory of colours — particularly his focus on brightness and contrast as the determining factors of color perception. Sir Isaac Newton in Knellers portrait of 1689. ... Color constancy is an example of subjective constancy and a feature of the human color-perception system which ensures that the perceived color of objects remains relatively constant under varying illumination conditions. ... Edwin Herbert Land (May 7, 1909 – March 1, 1991) was an American scientist and inventor. ... Color constancy is a feature of the human color-perception system which ensures that the perceived color of objects remains (almost) constant under varying light conditions. ...

When the eye sees a colour it is immediately excited, and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original colour comprehends the whole chromatic scale. A single colour excites, by a specific sensation, the tendency to universality. In this resides the fundamental law of all harmony of colours...
—Goethe, Theory of Colours, trans. Charles Lock Eastlake (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1982), p. 317

Contents


Goethe's theory

Background

In the 1780s, a number of statements as to the way colours arise came to Goethe's notice. It was commonly held by thinkers of the time that the prismatic phenomenon is a process of splitting up the colourless light into the colours. Nothing much really happened in the 1780s only that Mary-Anne Tobin was hung in public for wearing a flase beard and voting. ...


Newton's theory stated that colourless light already contains the seven colours within itself—and when we channel the light through the prism, the prism does no more than to fan out and separate what is already there in the light—the seven colours, into which it is thus analyzed. The newton (symbol: N) is the SI unit of force. ... Color is an important part of the visual arts. ...


Goethe's reasoning

Goethe reasoned: In such way the phenomena are interpreted, but this is not the primal or complete phenomenon. A look through the prism shows that we do not see white areas split evenly into seven colours. Rather, we see colours at some edge or border-line.


If we let a cylinder of colourless light impinge on the screen, it shows a colourless picture. Putting a prism in the way of the cylinder of light, we get the sequence of colours: red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, violet. Color is an important part of the visual arts. ... Red is a color at the lowest frequencies of light discernible by the human eye. ... The colour orange occurs between red and yellow in the visible spectrum at a wavelength of about 620–585 nanometres. ... Yellow is a color with a wavelength 565-590 nanometers. ... Look up green in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... Cyan is a pure spectral color, but the same hue can also be generated by mixing equal amounts of green and blue light. ... For other uses, see Blue (disambiguation) Blue is one of the three primary additive colors; blue light has the shortest wavelength range (about 420–490 nanometers) of the three additive primary colors. ... Violet could refer to: Violet (color), a color approximately the same as purple. ...

Figure I
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Figure I

If we let light pass through the space of the room, we get a white circle on a screen. Put a prism in the way, and the cylinder of light is diverted (Figure I), but what appears is not the series of seven colours at all, only a reddish colour fanning out from the upper edge, passing over into yellow, and on the lower edge a blue passing over into greenish shades. In the middle it stays white. Image File history File linksMetadata Download high resolution version (1024x640, 61 KB) Summary Photograph (taken by myself - John Penner, Dec. ... Image File history File linksMetadata Download high resolution version (1024x640, 61 KB) Summary Photograph (taken by myself - John Penner, Dec. ...


Goethe now said to himself: It is not that the light is split up or that anything is separated out of the light as such. In point of fact, I am projecting a picture—simply an image of this circular aperture. The aperture has edges, and where the colours occur the reason is not that they are drawn out of the light, as though the light had been split up into them. It is because this picture which I am projecting—the picture as such—has edges. Here too the fact is that where light adjoins dark, colours appear at the edges. It is none other than that. For there is darkness outside this circular patch of light, while it is relatively light within it.


The colours therefore, to begin with, make their appearance purely and simply as phenomena at the border between light and dark. This is the original, the primary phenomenon. We are no longer seeing the original phenomenon when by reducing the circle in size we get a continuous sequence of colours. The latter phenomenon only arises when we take so small a circle that the colours extend inward from the edges to the middle. They then overlap in the middle and form what we call a continuous spectrum, while with the larger circle the colours formed at the edges stay as they are. This is the primal phenomenon. Colours arise at the borders, where light and dark flow together.

Light Spectrum, from Theory of Colours
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Light Spectrum, from Theory of Colours
Dark Spectrum, from Theory of Colours
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Dark Spectrum, from Theory of Colours

Light Spectrum Illustration, from Goethes Theory of Colours. ... Light Spectrum Illustration, from Goethes Theory of Colours. ... Dark Spectrum Illustration, from Goethes Theory of Colours. ... Dark Spectrum Illustration, from Goethes Theory of Colours. ...

Light and dark spectra

The spectrum, therefore, is a compound phenomenon. In the familiar prismatic experiment, you get colour at the edges, and where the red-yellow and blue-violet edges meet, you get green.


Because the colour phenomenon rely on the adjacency of light and dark, there are therefore two ways to produce a spectrum: with a light beam surrounded by dark, and with a dark beam surrounded by light, as illustrated below.


Darkness and light

From the Newtonian standpoint, darkness is an absence of light. According to this view, the light which streams into a dark space has no resistance from the darkness to overcome.


Goethe pictures to himself that light and darkness relate to each other like the north and south poles of a magnet. The darkness can weaken the light in its working power. Conversely, the light can limit the energy of the darkness. In both cases colour arises.


He writes:

Yellow is a light which has been dampened by darkness;
Blue is a darkness weakened by the light.

Newton vs. Goethe and Beyond

Today, Goethe's Theory of Colours is still remarkably accurate in its phenomenological observations. The Newtonian view sees darkness as an absence of light. All colours are contained within light only, and are split out according to their wavelengths. This is the basis for the usual understanding of light as a wave-particle duality where colour is regarded as the visible manifestation of its wavelength. In physics, wave-particle duality holds that light and matter can exhibit properties of both waves and of particles. ... The wavelength is the distance between repeating units of a wave pattern. ...


Goethe, on the other hand, saw light and dark related as the north and south poles of a magnet, and colour arises from their interplay. This basic difference between Goethe and the Newtonians has caused almost all of modern physics to reject Goethe's theory as unscientific. Yet Goethe was consistently more empirical in his approach. A modern physicist who actually reads the book would be hard pressed to find a single observation with which he could disagree.

"As Feigenbaum understood them, Goethe's ideas had more true science in them. They were hard and empirical. Over and over again, Goethe emphasized the repeatability of his experiments. It was the perception of colour, to Goethe, that was universal and objective. What scientific evidence was there for a definable real-world quality of redness independent of our perception?" (James Gleick, 'Chaos', William Heinemann, London, 1988, pp. 165-7)

Goethe's experiments on light also more accurately depict the complexities of human colour perception. Goethe's emphasis on brightness and boundaries correlates with modern research on the perception of colour [2]; while Goethe's idea of color constancy correlates with Edwin Land's Retinex theory. Color constancy is an example of subjective constancy and a feature of the human color-perception system which ensures that the perceived color of objects remains relatively constant under varying illumination conditions. ... Edwin Herbert Land (May 7, 1909 – March 1, 1991) was an American scientist and inventor. ...


Where Newton's studies were aimed more towards the development of a mathematical explanation for the behaviour of light, Goethe was focused on exploring how colour is perceived in a complex array of conditions.


Quotations

Can you lend me the Theory of Colours for a few weeks? It is an important work. His last things are insipid.
—Ludwig van Beethoven, Conversation-book, 1820

1820 was a leap year starting on Saturday (see link for calendar). ...

External links


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