Color Mixing and Goethe's Triangle

In this section we will look at Goethe's color triangle and its possibilities for investigating color mixing.

In Goethe's original triangle the three primaries red, yellow, and blue are arranged at the vertices of the triangle. The other subdivisions of the triangle are grouped into secondary and tertiary triangles, where the secondary triangle colors represent the mix of the two primary triangles to either side of it, and the tertiary triangle colors represent the mix of the primary triangle adjacent to it and the secondary triangle directly across from it. (see example)

Goethe's original proposal was "to marvel at color's occurrences and meanings, to admire and, if possible, to uncover color's secrets" (Norman,49). To Goethe it was most important to understand human reaction to color, and his research marks the beginning of modern color psycology. He believed that his triangle was a diagram of the human mind and he linked each color with certain emotions. For example, Goethe associated blue with understanding and believed it evoked a quiet mood, while he believed that red evoked a festive mood and was suggestive of imagination. He choose the primaries red, yellow and blue based on their emotional content, as well as on physical grounds, and he grouped the different subsections of the triangle by 'elements' of emotion as well as by mixing level. This emotional aspect of the arrangement of the triangle reflects Goethe's concern that the emotional content of each color be taken into account by artists.

Within the context of Goethe's triangle, we find an excellent model for studying different color relationships, as well as for demonstrating some of the fundamental differences between electronic color and pigment (i.e.: additive vs. subtractive color mixing). An interactive triangle on the computer allows a simulation of these differences.

On the following page you will find an applet that will let you experiment with different kinds of color mixing. The applet contains a color chooser and a set of three triangles that display averaging, additive, and subtractive mixing. One of the triangles is larger and interactive, while the other two appear minimized above it. The changes incurred to the larger, however, will be visible in all. You may click on either of the smaller triangles to maximize it, and it will trade places with the current maximized triangle.

You will be able to use the HLS color chooser, introduced before, to choose the primary colors at the vertices of the large triangle. Simply make your selection with the chooser and click within one of the vertex triangles. When a primary triangle color is changed, the secondary and tertiary triangles will be remixed. The mixtures of the secondary and tertiary colors are displayed one by one. First the secondary mixes are shown, then the tertiary, so that you can follow the process.

Note: You will probably need to resize your browser window, the applet is quite large.

Color Chooser applet Goethe's Triangle applet