Goethe’s colour relationships

This is my learning log for TAOP exercise 3-3.

Some colours are inherently brighter than others. Yellow, for instance, is far brighter than violet. This is not a new idea; in fact, Goethe (yes, that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Goethe) published his Theory on Colours in 1810, in which he describes his take on colours. One of Goethe’s ideas is that each of the primary and secondary colours can be assigned a numeric value for how light it is, like this:

Goethe's symmetric colour wheel with 'reciprocally evoked colours' (source: Wikipedia)

Goethe’s symmetric colour wheel with ‘reciprocally evoked colours’ (source: Wikipedia)

  • Yellow 9
  • Orange 8
  • Red 6
  • Green 6
  • Blue 4
  • Violet 3

Based on these values, Goethe suggests that if a picture is dominated by two complementary colours, the picture will be most harmonic if the ratios of the areas covered by each colour matches their brightness values. In other words, the pictures will appear harmonious if they use these simple ratios:

  • Red and Green in equal measures 1:1
  • Orange and blue in ratios 1:2
  • Yellow and Violet in ratios 1:3

The exercise consist of two parts. The first part is to produce one photograph for each combination of primary and secondary colours, adjusting the distance, focal length or framing so that the picture ends up being composed according to the proportions listed above.

I made these three photos:

Red on Green: A bunch of red carnations left on the ground at the crematorium

Red on Green: A bunch of red carnations left on the ground at the crematorium

Orange on blue: A branch with autumn-orange leaves against a deep blue sky.

Orange on blue: A branch with autumn-orange leaves against a deep blue sky.

Yellow on violet: I used the same African Violet as yesterday, but zoomed (and cropped) very close to the stamen to get the 1:3 ratio

Yellow on violet: I used the same African Violet as yesterday, but zoomed (and cropped) very close to the stamen to get the 1:3 ratio

The second part of the exercise is to make three or four images which feature other colour combinations in order to demonstrate that there is no single “correctness” to complementary colours. These pictures do not need to have any specific ratio between the colours.

Yellow and Green: Autumn leaves on grass

Yellow and Green: Autumn leaves on grass

While walking around in the crematorium, I had had my eyes looking upwards most of the time, enjoying the view of the gorgeous autumn colours against the beautiful blue sky. But as I was leaving, I remembered to also look down and saw that there was an equal amount of colour there. Orange and green may not be quite as dramatic as orange and blue, but I still think it makes for a very enjoyable view (note to self: remember to bring a bin bag to lay down on, instead of always coming home with a wet jeans and dirty knees after a photo outing).

Red berries against blue sky

Red berries against blue sky

I was trying to bring out the red against blue, but looking at the picture now, I’m glad that there’s a fair bit of green as well. Here we have the three RGB primaries. The red against the blue is certainly a strong contrast, far more than the previous orange on green, even though both situations contain two colours 120 degrees apart on the colour wheel.

Poster of Union Jack behind shop window

Poster of Union Jack behind shop window

I don’t know why it is so rare to see Union Jack proudly flying in the wind (except for in front of the local BNP headquarters, and I’m not about to find out where they are!) But I managed to find a shop that had a poster with Union Jack in the window, and took a picture as another example of blue/red. There are obviously far more red in the flag than blue, so it does not follow Goethe’s recommendation which would have been that the two colours should have been in the ratio 4:6 or 2:3. Maybe this is the real reason for the Scots wanting independence – they’re tired of their part of the flag being given far too less prominence. Joking aside, it’s clear from the picture that red is a very dominating colour which completely overpowers the darker and less striking blue.

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