Goethe’s Theory of Colored Edges

I recently purchased the book, Goethe’s Theory of Colors: With Notes (1840). Many times I have attempted to delve into Goethe’s color theory but have been dismayed by the vastness of the text. But this text, which is a facsimilie of an 1840 translation by Charles Lock Eastlake (English), pares the work down to those entries that most relate to apparent visual phenomena as well as painting. It is still over 400 pages.

The thing that caught my eye the most was the phenomena of how light appears to bend around objects. Light we know travels in a straight line, but when there is a situation where there is extreme contrast, one can observe the radiation of light as it passes behind or in front of an object that is of the opposing contrast. And this radiation appears colored. It can appear as a colored edge, a colored halo as well as transform the interior color of a narrow object. This phenomena is of keen interest to the painter.

Many times I see an excellently painted still -life that is rendered very beautifully. The object itself rendered with complete accuracy, yet it seems to lack something. The artist descibes the object as it is, but in a way, disregards the power of light. Light, itself, is the real object of a painting. It is the medium in which all is revealed- the object, the space, the time, the mood. And within that time capsule one relates meaning and significance. As an artist one should seek to understand all visual phenomena- what actually occurs in nature, rather than adopting a technique that “sort of gets you there”.

A way to desribe the feeling of light in a painting is to look at these colored edges, halos and radiated color over a narrow object. Goethe begins with the phenomena of contrast. If one takes a light disc and pass it in front of a dark bakground one can observe 2 things: 1. that there is a violet halo that precedes the light disc, that seems to surround and radiate from behind the light disc. 2. That between the halo and the light disc, there is a colored edge that is an intense blue. This phenomena I have observed in my studio. Many times, I will paint a nude figure or portrait against a dark background. The figure is lit with a cool light. The background is some distance from the figure, a wall that is not lit by the main light source. What I have observed is this: The flesh seems to radiate a violet light in the form of a halo, that reaches into the background value, and along that bright side of the figure, one can observe an intense blue edge that resides between the halo and the edge of the figure.

If we reverse the contrast and take a dark disc and place it in front of an intensely lit bright background, we have a similar phenomena except that the colors are different. Radiating from around the dark disc, one can observe a yellow to yellow- orange halo against the light background. And between this yellow halo and the dark disc, one can observe an intense red edge. This phenomena I hadn’t really observed seriously until last week. One of my students began painting a series of commercially produced waffles which had a toasted gold-brown color. These were set upright against an intense light background. Between two of these upright waffles (which were partially in a cast shadow), one could see through to the background in the from of a triangle. What I observed was, that this light penetrating between two dark waffles created  a yellow halo  with an intense red edge observable along one of the waffles in shadow. The halo was harder to distinguish because it was similar in color to the local color of the waffle. But the red edge was very intense.

This phenomena of colored edges remains even when an object or background takes on a local color. The waffle was a yellow -orange color (not entirely neutralized) so the halo was a bit harder to observe, but the red edge was not. It remained intense regardless of the local color. I use to think that it was possible to have colored edges of various sorts- blue, red, yellow, green etc. But Goethe experiments with this idea and finds that contrast is the most important factor in creating the colored edge, not the local color. And this colored edge remains the same regardless of the local color. Light in front of dark= violet halo, blue edge. Dark in front of light= yellow/orange, yellow halo, red edge.

If you have read my previous excursion into colored edges, those of Chevreul, there will be some synthesis necessary to absorb both theories. Chevreul’s idea of a colored edge focuses on the local color of an object and the transition that takes place as it approaches the background color. If an object is red and the background is blue, the red object will transition to an orange as it approaches the background (Orange being the compliment of blue). And the blue background will approach a green as it approaches the red object (Green being the compliment to red). So the color transition will be thus: Blue- green- orange- red. This is very important in painting because objects emerge gracefully from the background. Goethe’s observation of edges rests primarily on observable contrast between background and object. Whereas, Chevruel does not and is observable in situations of moderate light. So the artist must look to nature as a guide, is the situation one of contrast or moderation? This seems the proper ground where the two theories meet.

In my next blog, I will cover the effect of light bending around narrow objects and transforming interior colors.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

3 thoughts on “Goethe’s Theory of Colored Edges”

  1. Fascinating, I love the way you study these theories and then describe them in a way that is so accessible and practical for the artist. Discussing The results of Your observation and application of the theories in your own work is especially valuable. Thank you Judith!

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