The painting above is of Mount Baker, done in the style of Lawren Harris, founder of the Group of Seven: an artist who first painted landscapes with a critical eye and focus on an exact replica of what was before him, before abandoning that to simplifying form, interpreting landscapes through a spiritual lens. I began to wonder about Harris and his influences, his colour theory which sits uncomfortably with mine: it was one of the issues I had doing this painting was fighting my own impulses and instead see the mountain through his eyes.
Isaac Newton’s theory of colour rests in the fact that light alone is responsible for colour. A theory he came to by setting up a prism near his window: light enters the prism and is refracted by the glass, violet is bent more than yellow and red, so the colours may be viewed separately. His theory contradicted Hooke’s who argued that colour was a mixture of light and darkness, with brilliant red which was pure white light with the least amount of darkness added all the way to dull blue which was the last step before black.
Artists loved Newton’s theory and in 1708 the first colour wheel was produced by Claude Boutet.
Then came Goethe. One of my heroes and a thinker I hold dear. He was a philosopher, a psychologist, an artist and a poet. He cared less for the science of colour than our perceptions of it: indeed, he birthed our philosophical understanding in the vast distinction between the optical spectrum (Newton’s theory) and how we experience colour, through our human eyes. Goethe felt that colour was how we experience the world biologically and culturally.
Physicists have spent a great deal of time rubbishing Goethe’s colour theory: pointlessly. Goethe as far as I am concerned never argued that his was a physical theory or a scientific one, but rather a philosophical, spiritual, intellectual and psychological one. The essence of his theory is in our perception of colour we create our own world. That is why his theories were picked up by the theosophist Lawren Harris and the great creator of what we now refer to as abstract art, Kandinsky.
“Light and darkness, brightness and obscurity or light and its absence are necessary to the production of colour. Colour itself is a degree of darkness.” Goethe
Newton’s theory rests on the fact that darkness passive, it is not colour. Goethe says colour itself is a degree of darkness. I can see in Harris’ work much of this thought process, his use of blue is opposite to mine. He uses it as I would use black. He accepts Kandinsky’s theory of the polarity of yellow and blue: yellow being closest to light whereas blue is the last step before dark.
Goethe created a poets’ colour wheel where he assigned emotions or spiritual values to each colour. It is worth investigating this and reading, especially with regard to MAGENTA. But in as succinct a phrase as I can find this:
Yellow is light which has been dampened by darkness; Blue is a darkness weakened by light.”
Kandinsky fascinated with this theory used transparency to create works that reflect this theory, check out his piece Several Circles, 1926: “cool romanticism” is the phrase he used to describe this new attitude.
The circle, which I have been using so often recently, can sometimes only be described as romantic. And the coming romanticism is indeed deep, beautiful, meaningful and joyful – it is a piece of ice with a flame burning in it. If people sense the ice and not the flame, then it’s all the worse for them …”
You see in this quote how he places ice and flame together, the polarity of the two. For me this quote defines Kandinsky’s theory of colour. And sheds light on Harris’ work.
For me darkness is the definition of the eternal nothing. It exists in absence of light. If light or a spiritual being were to enter that eternal darkness it would meet with no resistance but shine all the brighter by contrast. Goethe saw light and darkness like the north and south pole of a magnet, the darkness can weaken the light and conversely, light can lift the energy of darkness: in both cases, colour is created (Rudolf Steiner, 1897). We sit in opposition to each other.
I hadn’t truly understood this until I saw Mount Baker through Lawren Harris’ lens. When I paint I first create the void, the absence of light. Then I add light, it is for me a spiritual mystical journey: the creation of light and colour where there had been an absence of it before. I certainly do not see blue as darkness, either in my experience of it, psychologically or philosophically. Rather blue is all light, ethereal and eternal beauty. That place was held by Yellow in Goethe’s theory and those that adhered to it. Yellow was warm & light, Blue was cold & dark. For me this does not hold true but it is a fascinating journey as an artist to see through another’s lens, if only to reassure myself that my view is right and theirs wrong.
Goethe and his thoughts are well worth investigating, amongst my favourite of his quotes are:
The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone.
As soon as you trust yourself you will know how to live.
I have produced a tutorial to help those interested in these theories to figure out for themselves what speaks truly to you. I ask you to create 12 even squares on a large piece of paper and in each write an emotion or feeling. Then pour yellow, red, blue, white and black paints onto a plate in front of you. Using colour and brush strokes describe each feeling/emotion! Yes, it will make you angry and frustrated at first, to put colour and strokes to an abstract thought is not easy but go with your first instinctual colour or brush stroke. Don’t over think it.
From there I ask you to put it aside for reference and put on a tune, or song that you like. Now draw, paint and create in form and colour that song or tune. Again, this will seem impossible but it isn’t. Trust your instincts and listen to the beat, to the emotions and feelings created within and explain them using colour. Refer to your sheet you produced if need be.
This is an exercise I do regularly with children and adults. It is a quick way to come to an understanding of the differences in our perceptions of colour. In seeing these monumental differences in how we experience the world (since colour is how we experience it) we can come to an understanding of just how different we all are, how unique our perspectives and often, vastly opposed.