As we know, colour surrounds us. It’s everywhere, inescapable, only until night comes and swallows it up, to let the sun come up the next morning and re-gift us all of the colours.
Could these all-encompassing colours have such an impact on our day-to-day lives? On how we feel? On who we are?
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe seemed to think so. He also seemed to be the only person in town who didn’t quite believe in any of Newton’s ideas on colour.
“A great mathematician was possessed with an entirely false notion on the physical origin of colours”
“The theory of colours… has suffered much, and it’s progress has been incalculably retarded by having been mixed up with optics generally”
While Newton had very physics-based ideas on colours (read about them here), in 1810, Goethe (an author and politician) took a much more psychological route to explaining colours and although his ideas were dismissed by…. well, everyone, Goethe still had interesting ideas.
Goethe’s version of science was less focused on experiments, but more about his own personal observations. As a poet, a man of art, he thought having previous physical knowledge would be a hindrance to learning about light and colours.
He created his own colour wheel which he divided in half, one side being Positive and the other Negative. Only when one colour from each opposite side was chosen, would colour harmony occur. He used this wheel of colours to link them with human emotions.
The Positive Side:
Goethe really liked yellow. In fact, he apparently owned twenty yellow waistcoats. It is “the colour nearest the light” and could be so easily tainted or contaminated by other colours. He linked emotions of serenity, happiness and saw yellow as “softly exciting”.
Red-yellow in Goethes eyes represented the deeper darker part of a fire. From this metaphor, he associated it with warmth, and happiness.
Yellow-red he noted, “seems actually to penetrate the organ”. By this he meant, it makes people feel extremely excited, similar to the way an animal is enraged by a [yellow]red cloth, it inflames people from within.
The Negative Side:
On the opposite side of his wheel, Goethe said blue has “a peculiar and almost indescribable effect on the eye”. It encourages feelings of darkness and coldness he thought, however it also brings emotions of tranquility and rest.
Similar to the way in which yellow changes into red-yellow, Goethe saw red-blue as a colour which begins to become more active compared to blue alone. However, rather than exciting somebody, Goethe interpreted red-blue (or lilac) as a colour which could be found more disturbing.
Red is a powerful colour. To Goethe, lighter hues of red expressed grace and eloquence while darker shades command respect and portray heaviness.
If a green hue is mixed by yellow and blue perfectly, Goethe states it will create a perfect, calming, harmonious colour for the eyes to ease over with the viewer having “neither the wish nor the power to imagine a state beyond it“.
Colours don’t belong with emotions as such, yet humans have always seemed to link the two together. A study published in 2001 undertaken on preschool aged children aimed to prove that even kids as young as three, relate colours with emotions.
It was found that yes, by age three, most kids would associate bright colours like yellow with happiness. This also goes for adults. Darker colours such as blue and purple were associated with sad facial expressions and emotions. These dark colours are viewed as low in arousal and therefore might encourage the relation to sadness. By age 10, children are also connecting black to sadness and red to anger.
So, it seems that although there really is not much of a reason to, human brains have been connecting colours and emotions for a very long time.
My next blog looks more into this topic and at an ever-so-slightly more scientific approach to this idea!