The idea of “warm” and “cool” colors was first posited by the English miniaturist and teacher Charles Hayter. The illustration is from his treatise, Perspective, published in 1813.
The way we perceive color is greatly influenced by our experience. We all know that fire is hot and ice is cold, so we perceive reddish orange as a “hot” color and blue as a “cold” color. This association is so strong that painters, photographers, interior designers and fashion designers can all use it color temperature as emotional shorthand.
This association actually flies in the face of physics. While we call colors over 5000K cool, and colors below 3000K warm, the actual physics of the matter are exactly opposite—the shorter the wavelength, the higher the temperature.
Goethe's color wheel, 1809.
That “warm” and “cool” are subjective is demonstrated by the fact that different painters learn the hottest and coolest points differently. I understand blue-violet as the coolest color, while one of my painting students—an art teacher herself—learned blue to be the coolest tone. And look at this attempt to quantify color temperature by a Chinese-American painter; he seems to be putting aqua at the coldest point.
The first color wheel we know of was created by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the first of a long line of philosophers to concern themselves with the meaning of color. He wrote: “The chromatic circle... [is] arranged in a general way according to the natural order... for the colours diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. Thus, yellow demands violet; orange [demands] blue; purple [demands] green; and vice versa: thus... all intermediate gradations reciprocally evoke each other; the simpler colour demanding the compound, and vice versa…”
The “rose of temperaments” (1798-99) by Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, matched human occupations and character traits to colors. I don’t read German, but I swear my red couch qualifies me to be a tyrant.
So far, so awesome. Unfortunately, Goethe also included aesthetic values in his color wheel, titling them the “allegorical, symbolic, mystic use of colour.” That was an idea that developed a life of its own.
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