Pythagoras, Aristotle, Plato
An interpretation of
In a reality so rich with colours, there are in reality no colours. The colours we see indeed depend on the light that enters our eyes from the outside world. Nevertheless, what we actually perceive as red or green originates deep within our brains. Colours are not, therefore, merely «Deeds of Light», as Johann Wolfgang Goethe once claimed; colours are also a product of the self, and we decorate our own personal world with them.
We see and produce an apparently endless abundance of colours. Philo of Alexandria was the first to notice this when, in the first century, he marvelled at the colours around the neck of a dove as it moved in the light of the sun. At that moment, something may have dawned upon the man of antiquity which we now accept without question: namely, that the abundance of colours is actually so rich and plentiful that we cannot name all its shades and tones — at least, not without the aid of a systematic order. It is only natural, therefore, that throughout history we have endeavoured to invent a system for colours. We shall be investigating some of these attempts, and in so doing we shall see that there is no clear and final, nor even objective, solution to the problem of arranging the colours of our world into a distinct order. The history of colour systems remains as open as the history of human beings themselves.
Colours are ideas. As we progress, moving from the classical world towards the present day, we shall wish to acquaint ourselves with their origin, both in the world about us and within our own minds. At the same time, we shall gradually have to learn to deal with the vocabulary of colour in a more exact way — naturally, without sacrificing its range. To the physicist, «colour» can imply a determinable wavelength, but to the painter it is a brilliant substance on his palette. If we turn our attention to «mixtures», we will be faced with so many possible variations that there will soon be confusion if we fail to determine exactly what, in each case, has been combined. Red and green light, for example, will together form a different colour than red and green watercolours.
Aristotle was probably the first to investigate colour mixtures — and in so doing, meet with failure. He arranged for daylight, which is seldom colourless in its effect (we shall be considering this later), to fall upon a white marble wall after passing through a yellow and a blue fragment of glass. After observing the two resulting patches of light and their colours, he then held the blue fragment between the wall and the yellow fragment. When Aristotle saw the green component in addition to the original yellow and blue, he came to the conclusion that green will be formed when yellow light and blue light are mixed together.
For a while we may tend to agree with such an addition. However, if we then consider these pieces of coloured glass more closely, we will soon see that something must have been subtracted from the light which passes here. Every time the apparently white light of the sun is made to pass through a piece of coloured glass, a component will be removed. (Using the techniques of modern physics, this can now be measured accurately). If this light has passed through both the yellow and the blue glass fragments, its remnant light will be seen by our brains as green.
We will, for a while, leave undisturbed the precisely measurable aspects of the science of colours, in order to explain more about the ideas of the Greeks — ideas which thrive on the experience provided by our senses. Their world is understood as an organic entity, with its colours arising from the continually observed struggle between the darkness of the night and the light of day. Any system of colours must therefore range from white through to black and, as with all first attempts, the simplest possibility is tried to begin with: namely, the straight line.
Aristotle’s system, where red is also able to occur less dramatically as a combination of black and white — as demonstrated by the reddish glow in a black steel reflector, for example — may well be as clear and convincing as the «Explanation of Colours» provided by
If we wish to sketch this construction and understand it as a geometrical pattern, we can proceed in a personal way, just as Plato did (
Aristotle not only observed colours very accurately, but also their contrasts («De meteorologica»). He was aware that the violet appearing on white wool appeared different when on black wool, and that embroidery appeared different in daylight and in the light of a candle. Aristotle, therefore, had already asked those questions which, only much later, were to be systematically examined and explained by the French chemist
Basic colours: Pythagoras: musical notes are assigned to colours; Aristoteles: colours throughout the day: white, yellow, red, violet, green, blue, black; Plato: white, black, red, “radiant”.
Form: Aristotle: line
Bibliography: Aristotle, «De sensu et sensato», «De anima», «Meteorologica»; Plato, «Timaios», 67D-68C in the Stephanus numbering; A. T. Mann, «The Round Art», London 1979; Th. Lersch, «Farbenlehre», in: «Reallexikon zur Deutschen Kunstgeschichte», published by the Zentralinstitut für Kunstgeschichte Münschen, Volume VII, Munich, 1981.