Handheld Arts Blog/Color/Experiencing Goethe's Color Theory

Experiencing Goethe's Color Theory

Monday, January 01, 2024

Experiencing Goethe's Color Theory

How I came to an understanding about Color

As a mature visual artist and maker, I still make time to review and re-enliven the basic concepts and assumptions that underlie my artistic practice. I feel that this inner development contributes to the richness and satisfaction of my most recent artistic output, both in my teaching and in my making.

It took me many, many years to discern and develop an approach and process that I could call my own. I can say that I have stability and confidence in my artistic knowledge and my practice, but I still take the time to investigate the “basics” of artmaking. At different times of the year, when the inner passion and inspiration cools, I take a hiatus and develop a new research project. This research allows me to investigate how certain ideals, materials or practices help or hinder the expression of my inner vision and voice.

One year I wanted to find out what type of wood and pigment were used to make the best colored pencils because I was endlessly frustrated that my pencil points kept breaking. Another time I tested ten different brands of wax crayons and learned about the crayon making process, because I wanted my colors to blend more smoothly on the paper. One year I learned how to shear a sheep and spin my own thread so I could understand the textile making process. Recently, I learned how to use my sewing machine for freehand embroidery. I found that these explorations deepened my respect for the materials I used, expanded my skills, and sharpened my discernment; further confirming or refining my conscious creative choices.

In the last two years, I have been asking questions about how light, color and darkness play a role in my work. Seeking a more metaphysical understanding of this theme I turned to spiritual science. As a student of anthroposophy and a Waldorf teacher for over 20 years, I have read much about color and painting. Intellectually, I was well informed. I could repeat the concepts, but practically, I found I could not make use of it in my creative work. I knew that I did not have any conscious experiences of the color concepts Rudolf Steiner was describing. The only way I could make it real, was to do the work myself, to follow in his footsteps. In his Colour lectures, Steiner openly admits that his color work is an extension, a continuation of the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, so I knew that was where I had to begin.

Originally published in 1810, Goethe’s Theory of Colors was an attempt to stand up against the work of the physicists of his time. Goethe lamented that the theories about color had been reduced to only mathematical considerations. Goethe’s Theory of Colors was dynamic and multi-faceted, focusing on his personal observations and contemplation of the natural world. It includes an examination of Newton’s theory, which he felt “impeded a free inquiry into the phenomena of color.” He includes descriptions of his own experiments with optics, using lenses and prisms. And lastly, he focuses on the subjective qualities of color, examining their characters, color harmonies and aesthetics.

To give you a little historical context, Sir Issac Newton discovered that he could bend the light of a sunbeam with a prism and produce the spectrum of colors on his bedroom wall in 1665, one hundred years before Goethe was born. As a man of the new scientific age, Newton’s discoveries influenced the work of scientists from his time, into the early 1800’s, and beyond. His followers continued to develop his discoveries about light and color, eventually promoting the wave theory, demonstrating that the wavelength of light determines its color.

As I dove into Goethe’s theory of colors, I read his words and then I purchased a prism and followed his instructions. I was able to see what he described! I observed the sky over time and gathered similar experiences of color in the natural world that he had experienced. Then I started painting, exploring the colors and color relationships that he describes in the last segment of his book: Part VI. Effect of Color with Reference to Moral Associations.

When describing this section in the introduction, Goethe states:,

“In entering this theory from the side of painting, from the side of aesthetic coloring generally, we shall be found to have accomplished a most thank-worthy office for the artist. In the sixth part we have endeavored to define the effects of color as addressed at once to the eye and mind, with a view of making them more available for the purposes of art…. it should be remembered that all theory can in strictness only point out leading principles, under the guidance of which, practice may proceed with vigor and be enabled to attain legitimate results.” (1)

As a result of my own “practice with vigor” and dedication to the research, I did attain “legitimate results!” The colors began to speak to me in a new way. I began to “hear” them. They revealed their inner natures to my eyes and my mind and I could discern their character and qualities. As a result, I have been using color more consciously in my painting and embroidery work. I am more aware, more conscious during the process of choosing colors.

I walked away from this research project saying to myself, “I never really knew about color until now.” Now I can confidently say that I have a much deeper understanding of the power that color can have in art. When color is used in a conscious way, when we acknowledge their inner qualities and relationships, color can have a moral effect upon the soul, guiding the soul towards goodness.

In February 2024, I will be a keynote speaker at the Waldorf Handwork Educator’s Online International Handwork Teaching Conference. Over the course of the three days we are together, I will share the results of my research on Goethe’s color theory with you.Each day, through presentations, conversation and painting exercises, you, too, will have the opportunity to explore Goethe’s ideas about color. It is my aim during the conference to help you to cultivate your own experiences with color. Our live painting demonstrations will show you how to broaden your contemplative practice so that you too can hear the colors sing! In complementary handwork lectures and workshops during the conference you can discover ways to apply what you have learned to create beautiful, useful works of art in your studio or classroom.

I hope you will join me. I look forward to meeting you and working with you in February!
​(1) p. lxi-lxii, von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Theory of Colors. MIT Press, 1970.

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Hi, I am Kelly Beekman

Artist, Teacher, Mentor

"Great things are done by a series of small things brought together"
- Vincent Van Gogh

© 2024 Kelly Beekman
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