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    Goethe's color theory

  
 



Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), the greatest poet, playwright, novelist and essayist in the German language a polymath comparable to Shakespeare, Dante, etc.

Nobody has ever imagined that Newton’s basic ideas about light and color could be incorrect, except for one person: Goethe.

He was a scientist, too. He wrote of his 1400-page treatise on color, published in 1810:

"That I am the only person in this century who has the right insight into the difficult science of colors, that is what I am rather proud of, and that is what gives me the feeling that I have outstripped many."

Goethe misinterpreted some experiments that he incorrectly thought showed Newton to be wrong.



Goethe’s diagrams in the first plate of Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Colors) include a colorwheel, and diagrams of distorted color perception. The bottom landscape is how a scene would look to blue-yellow colorblind.

  

What he did do was to re-formulate the topic of color in an entirely new way. Newton had viewed color as a physical problem, involving light striking objects and entering our eyes. Goethe realized that the sensations of color reaching our brain were shaped too by our perception — by the mechanics of human vision, by the way our brains process information. What we therefore see of an object depends on the object, the lighting and our perception.

Goethe sought to derive laws of color harmony, ways of characterizing physiological colors (how colors affect us) and subjective visual phenomena in general. Goethe studied after-images, colored shadows and complementary colors (as discussed elswhere). And he anticipated Hering’s "opponent-color" theory which is one basis of our understanding of color vision today. Above all, Goethe appreciated that the sensation of complementaries did not result from light reaching eyes but from the action of the visual system.

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