November 18, 2009

What I Looked At Today [Until My Eyes Glazed Over] - Goethe

I don't know who Bruce MacEvoy is, but his is the most exhaustive series of comparative analyses of various theories of color theory I've found. [aha. A web guy/artist who sold YHOO better than I did.]

As I debate in my mind whether to order paint colors for my Dutch Landscape paintings or to mix them myself, I find once again that painting, which I thought I knew something about, has deep historical, theoretical, and practical tranches which I'd never seriously considered.

Anyway, here's a tiny bit of MacEvoy's discussion of Zur Farberlehre (1810), the monumental, idiosyncratic, combative, and too-obscure treatise/polemic on color that consumed Johann Wolfgang von Goethe for nearly two decades:

goethe_color_magnet_handprint.jpgThis approach is exemplified in the watercolor Color Magnet (right), painted after a long evening discussion about the "polarity" of color with the poet Friedrich Schiller. The short vertical bars (far right) represent primordial yellow and blue refraction fringes (discussed below); the curved bars (at left), which are drawn to resemble the curve of iron filings across the opposing poles of two magnets, show the mixtures that result when "attracting" fringes are overlapped to produce the "union" mixture green (below) and the "deepening" extraspectral mixture purpur (above). These combinations produce Newton's spectrum (horizontal bar, center bottom) and the extraspectral purples (horizontal bar, center top). Linking all mixtures together end to end, just as bar magnets can be linked at their opposite poles, produces the central vertical bar, the circumference of the hue circle, with the light emitting colors of sun and sky at the center. There is an almost mystical simplemindedness in this pursuit of patterns, resemblances and associations, but it is the essence of the Goethean approach to color.

Unfortunately, Goethe's ambitious project has been rendered incoherent both by the deleted sections and by the English translation title: Farbenlehre simply means "chromatics," with no "theory" implied (just as Sprachlehre means "grammar" and not "theory of speech"). Given Goethe's sensitivity to language, it is not irrelevant to note that the root meaning of lehre is "lesson," "teaching" or "learning from experience". In the same way that a grammar of language simply describes the patterns in how we speak, Goethe wanted to develop a holistic "grammar" of color that describes how color behaves. He was looking for patterns in color experience -- not for a theory of colors extracted from physical experiments. This makes his book an important precursor to German phenomenology. All these complexities have disappeared from the truncated English version of the book.

And then there's this bit from further down, which seems to sidle up to the edge, to so speak, of these discrete polygons of algorithmic color I will paint:
Next, in what he motivates as a pedagogical move, Goethe illustrates the "primordial" shadowing or distorting of images with the colors produced by a prism. These illustrate what is probably the central analogy of his book: that color, to the extent it has an external, physical origin, results in the blending of edges or boundaries between dark and light; edges are both the essential element of an image and the primordial cause of color appearance:

"[When viewed through a prism], we have found all unbroken surfaces, large or small, to be colourless, yet at the outlines or boundaries [edges], where the surface is relieved upon a darker or lighter object, we observe a coloured appearance. Outline, as well as surface, is necessary to constitute a figure or circumscribed object. We therefore express the leading fact thus: circumscribed objects must be displaced by refraction in order to exhibit an appearance of colour." (¶197-198)

Not that Goethe was at all correct, of course. [Or as MacEvoy puts it, "Even when charitably summarized, Goethe's theory of color is incomplete, inconsistent and incomprehensible."] But it's still kind of fascinating.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: November 18, 2009.

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