Goethe’s Theory of Colored Edges, Part II

The Palisades by George Bellows

In my last blog post, I explored Goethe’s theory of colored edges in regard to contrast. If there is a marked contrast between an object and the background, one can observe colored halos as well as a colored edge. The distinct difference being whether a light object is in front of a dark background or whether a dark object rests in front of an intensely lit background.  If there is a disc that is light against a dark background, a violet halo will precede and seem to emanate from the light disc. Between this violet halo and the object, there will appear an intense blue edge along the object. If there is a dark disc against an intensely lit background, there will appear a yellow or yellow-red halo preceding the dark disc. And between that halo and the dark object will appear an intense red edge.

If an object is narrow, these 2 forms of phenomena actually come together. I first thought about this many years ago when I saw a retrospective of George Bellows’ work at the Whitney. At that time, I was still in college in NYC and had yet to begin painting seriously again. But it struck me as quite profound. In this painting of ice-floes along the Hudson, titled, “The Palisades” (1911), Bellows cuts the foreground plane with a pole-like tree. This tree is intensely dark against the frozen white river in the sunshine. Bellows allowed for the intense contrast to be felt, not just by focusing on the extreme value change, but more importantly by varying the color along this narrow trunk. This phenomena is described perfectly in Goethe’s color theory. In the tree trunk, there is intense contrast and the object is narrow.  Bellow’s observation of the tree trunk against the ice is intensely observed. It contains a luminosity and saturation of color, especially of the red, that heightens the sense of light within the painting. It is so close to Goethe’s theory that I suspect that Bellows had not just observed this in nature, but had in fact had some knowledge of Goethe’s theories. (It could have come to his attention through his classmate, Rockwell Kent, who was fluent in German and well read in German literature.)

Goethe states, “If the object is large, its center remains unchanged. Its inner surface is then to be considered unlimited: it is displaced, but not otherwise altered: but if the object is so narrow, that under the above conditions the yellow border can reach the blue edge, the space between the outlines will be entirely covered with color.” (Eastlake, Goethe’s Theory of Colors: With Notes (1840), p.88).

If we take Bellows’ example of the dark pole residing in front of intensely lit ice floes, we will find that this dark narrow strip is bordered on one side by the violet halo/ blue edge and on the opposite side by the yellow-red halo and red edge. Extreme contrast and narrowness are present. In such like conditions, what will be observed is this: The violet halo will spread till it meets the yellow- red edge. “In this case the intermediate black is effaced and in its stead a splendid red will appear. The series of colors will be as follows- Blue, blue-red (violet), red, yellow-red, yellow.” (Ibid.,p.89) The red color will appear inside the object and entirely transform the black strip (this is observable in “The Palisades”). It will draw the red out of the bordering colors on both sides. This red will then be bordered on one side by the blue and violet and on the other side by the yellow-red and yellow. These outside areas consisting of the edge and the halo effect remain and would have occurred anyway because of the extreme contrast present.

This phenomena would also occur if the strip was white and the background dark, although the colors would appear on the opposing side. “If we make this experiment with a white stripe on a black ground, the two extremes will presently meet, and thus produce green. We shall then see the following series of colors- Yellow-red, yellow, green, blue, blue-red.” (Ibid.,p.88). The green is thus drawn from the dominant yellow on one side and the dominant blue on the other. “In this case, the yellow and the blue can by degrees meet so fully, that the two colors blend entirely in green and the order will then be- Yellow-red, green, blue-red. And in the first case, under similar circumstances, we see only- Blue, red, yellow. This appearance is best exhibited by refracting the bars of a window when they are relieved on a grey sky.” (Ibid.,p.89).

The cases above produce the most varied and intense color but as the conditions or circumstances are eliminated, the color will also decrease. If contrast is lessened or local color is more intense, this phenomena will appear less pronounced. Goethe goes further with his experiments (adding prisms and convex lenses etc.), than I have described because I feel these apply less to a painters interest which rests on observable phenomena. These natural occurrences will not appear everyday, but I feel if a painter is conscious of such phenomena, he can seize the moment when such things do appear before his eyes. If one has no consciousness of such phenomena, then one cannot possibly penetrate into one’s image and heighten the sense of color, light and intensity of observation. When one has attuned one’s self to such things, than one’s eyes are open to the possibilities and such phenomena becomes a part of one’s experience in the world.

The Supremacy of the Moment

Detail of ‘Bridghid at One’

As a painter, I spend a considerable amount of time experimenting in order to build my experience in paint. I also believe that all great work comes from living in the “moment.” But I find that spontaneity arises from a combination of experience and thorough preparation. Preparation at first appears to be antithetical to spontaneity. But being prepared for that moment when your subject is before you allows the mind and spirit to be freed up. One is not overly preoccupied with materials. One is liberated to be sensitive to the subject- seeking to capture something more elusive, something more than mere objective reality.

Design seeks harmony and resonance between the many elements in an image. Robert Henri, known for his Hals like spontaneity, spent a lifetime reflecting on design in color and composition. His archive at the Yale Beinecke Library reflects the intensity with which he pursued it.  He states in The Art Spirit, “It is a question of seeing significances and apprehending the special forms and colors which will serve as building materials. A good picture is a well built structure.”(p.50) In regards to composition, Henri used several methods throughout his life- mainly rebatement but also the golden section and something called the whirling square developed by Jay Hambridge.

Good design is the framework on which a forceful image can be built. But Henri never allowed it to be evident. Design was always subservient to the moment of engagement. Design was there to support experience. The two should flow together like a river, moving in the same direction and having the same source and final destination. George Bellows, Henri’s star pupil, allowed design to take control of his late work and because of this many of his late images of figures appear rigid, forcing them to conform to a preconceived design. The interplay between design and experience is thwarted. ” It is not enough to have thought great things before doing the work. The brush stroke at the moment of contact carries inevitably the exact being of the artist at that exact moment into the work, and there it is, to be seen and read by those who can read such signs…”(ibid, p.16)

I can only categorize Henri’s color theory as surprising. Looking at the colors in the archive objectively, they are beautiful. And the surprise is that these beautiful color combinations are observable in reality- which I have found through my own experimentation. There is a heightened “intensity” in them. By intensity, I do not necessarily mean the colors are intense in chroma but that there is a wonderful balance between pure color and moody and mysterious darks. But even in regard to color, Henri allows the ” living moment” to guide the work. The “living moment”is not necessarily bound within the time frame when the subject is in the presence of the artist. “The most vital things in the look of a face or of a landscape endure only for a moment. Work should be done from memory. The memory of that vital movement. During that moment there is a correlation of the factors of that look…The special order has to be retained in memory- that special look and order which was its expression. Memory must hold it.” (ibid, p.27) Although design is of critical importance to all great images, the “essential” moment of your personal engagement with the world takes priority.