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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

Part I
GA 291

2. The Luminous and Pictorial Nature of Colours

7 May 1921, Dornach

We tried yesterday to understand the nature of colour from a certain point of view and found on the way—white, black, green, peach-blossom colour; and in such a manner that we were able to say: these colours are images or pictures, they are already present in the world with the character of pictures; but we saw also that something essential proceeded from something else giving rise to the pictorial character of the colour. We saw, for example, that the living must proceed from the lifeless, and that in the lifeless the image of the living, the green arises. I shall continue today from our yesterday's experience, and in such a way as to differentiate between, so to speak, the receiver and the give, between that in which the picture is formed, and the originator of it. Then I shall be able to put the following division before you: I differentiate (you will understand the expression if you take the whole of what we did yesterday)—I differentiate the shadow-thrower from the Illuminant. If the shadow-thrower is the spirit, the spirit receives that which is thrown upon it; if the shadow-thrower is the spirit and if the illuminant (it is an apparent contradiction, but not a real one) is the dead, then black is pictured in the spirit as the image of the dead, as we saw yesterday.

If the shadow-thrower is the dead, and the illuminant the living, as in the case of the plant, then, as we saw, you have green. If the shadow-thrower is the living and the illuminant the psychic, then, as we saw, you get the image of peach-colour. If the shadow-thrower is the psychic and the illuminant the spirit, you get white as the image.

So you see, we have got these four colours with the pictorial character. We can therefore say: with a shadow-thrower and an illuminant, we get a picture. So we get here four colours—but you must reckon black and white among the colours—with the picture-character: black, white, green, peach-colour.

When the lifeless appears in the Spirit you get black.

The Spirit The dead black
The dead The living green
The living The psychic peach-colour
The psychic The spirit white

Now, as you know, there are other so-called colours, and we have to search also for their natures. We shall not search for them through abstract concepts any more than before, but approach the matter according to feeling, and then you will see that we come to a certain understanding of the colours if we put the following before our eyes.

Think of a quiescent white. Then we will let beams of different colours from opposite sides play on to this quiescent white—it can be a quiet white room—from one side yellow and from the other blue. We then get green.

In this way therefore we got green. We have to visualize exactly what happens: we have a quiescent white, into which we throw rays of colour from both sides, one yellow and the other blue and we get the green we have already found from another point of view.

You see, we cannot look for the peach-colour as we looked for the green, if we confine ourselves to the living production of colour. We must seek it in another way, as follows: Imagine I paint here a black, below it a white, another black, below it a white and so on—black and white alternately—now imagine that this black and white was not quiescent—they would vibrate, as it were. In fact, it is the opposite of what we had up here: here we had a quiescent white and let beams of colour into it from both sides in a continuous process, yellow and blue from left and right. Now I take black and white; I cannot of course paint that at the moment, but imagine these undulating through each other; and just as I let in yellow and blue before, allow now this undulation, with its continual interplay of black and white, to be shone through, pierced with red: if I could select the right shade, I should, through this play of black and white into which I let the red shine, get peach-colour.

Notice how we must resort to quite different methods of producing colours. With one we must take a quiescent white—and thus we must destroy one of the picture-colours in the scale we already have here—and let two other colours which we have not yet got play upon it. But here we have to go about it differently; here we have to take two of the colours we have, black and white, we must instill movement into them, take a colour we have not yet got, namely red, and let is shine through the moving white and black. You will also see something which will strike you if you observe life: green you have in nature; peach-colour you have (as I explained yesterday, in my sense) only in a fully healthy man. And, I said, the possibility is not easily present of reproducing this shade of colour. For one could really reproduce it only if one could represent white and black in motion and then let fall on them the beam of red. One would really have to produce a circumstance—it is after all present in the human organism—in which there was always motion. Everything is in movement and from that fact arises this colour of which we are speaking. So that we can get this colour only in a roundabout way, and for this reason the majority of portraits are really only masks, because flesh-colour can be realized only by means of all sorts of approximations. It could be achieved only, you see, if we had a continual wave movement of black and white, with red rays through it.

I have here pointed out to you from the nature of things a certain difference in relation to colour. I have shown you how to use the colours which we get as pictorial colours, how in one case we used white, in a condition of rest, and by throwing upon it two colours which we have not yet got, we obtained another pictorial colour, namely, green.

Again, we take two colours, black and white, in a scale of reciprocated movement, and let them be penetrated or illuminated by a new colour, that we have not yet got, and the result is another colour—peach-colour. We get peach-colour and green, therefore, in quite different ways. In one case we required red, in the other yellow and blue. Now we shall be able to go a step further towards the nature of colour if we consider another thing.

Taking the colours we found yesterday, we may say as follows: By its own nature green always allows us to make it with definite limits. Green can be enclosed or limited: in other words it is not unpleasant to us if we paint a surface green and give is a circumscribed area. But just imagine this is the case of peach-colour. It does not agree with our artistic sense. Peach-colour can be represented really only as a mood, without reference to a defined area, without expecting one. If you have a sense of colour, you can feel that. If, for instance, you think of a green—you can easily think of green card-tables. Because a game is a limited pedantic activity, something very Philistine, one can think of such an arrangement—a room with card-tables covered in green. What I mean is that it would be enough to make you run away, if you were invited to play cards on mauve tables. On the other hand, a lilac coloured room, or a room furnished throughout in mauve, would lend itself very well, shall we say, to mystical conversation, in the best and the very worst sense. It is true, the colours in this respect are not anti-moral, but amoral. Thus we note that as a result of its own nature, colour has a inner character; whereby green allows itself to be defined, lilac and peach or flesh-colour tend to spread into vagueness.

Let us try to get a the colours which we did not have yesterday, from this point of view. Let us take yellow, the whole inner nature of yellow, if we make here a yellow surface. Yes, you see, a defined surface of yellow is something disagreeable; it is ultimately intolerable for someone with artistic feeling. The soul cannot bear a yellow surface which is limited and defined in extent. So we must make the yellow paler towards the edges, and then still paler. In short we must have a full yellow in the centre and from there it must shade off to pale yellow. You cannot picture yellow in any other way, if you want to feel it with your own being. Yellow must radiate, getting paler all the time. That is what I might call the secret of yellow. And if you hem in the yellow, it is in fact as if you laughed at it. You always see the human factor in it, which has bounded the yellow. Yellow does not speak when it is bounded, for it refuses to be bounded, it wants to radiate in some direction or other.

We shall see a case in a moment, where yellow consents to be bounded, but it will just go to show how impossible it is, considering its real inner nature. It wants to radiate. Let us take blue on the other hand. Imagine a surface covered equally with blue. One can imagine it, but it has something super-human. When Fra Angelico paints equal blue surfaces, he summons, as it were, something super-terrestrial into the terrestrial sphere. He allows himself to paint an equal blue when he brings super-terrestrial things into the terrestrial sphere. In the human sphere he would not do it, for blue as such, because of its own nature, does not permit a smooth surface. Blue by its inner nature demands the exact opposite of yellow. It demands that the colour is intensified on the circumference and shades off towards the center. It demands to be strongest at the edges and palest in the middle. Then blue is in its element. By this it is differentiated from yellow. Yellow insists on being strongest in the center, and then paling off. Blue piles itself up at the edges and flows together, to make a piled-up wave, as it were, round a lighter blue. Then it shows itself in its very own nature.

We arrive therefore on all sides at what I might call the feeling or longing of the soul in face of colours. And these are fulfilled; that is, the painter really responds to them, if he paints in accordance with what the colour itself demands. If he consciously thinks—now I've dipped my brush in the green, now I must be a bit of a Philistine and give the green a sharp outline; if he thinks: now I am painting yellow—I must make that radiate, I must imagine myself the spirit of radiation; and if he thinks when painting blue: I draw myself in, into my innermost self and build, as it were, a crust round me, and so I must also paint by giving the blue a kind of crust: then he lives in his colour and paints in his picture what the soul really must want if it yields itself to the nature of colour.

Of course, as soon as we touch upon art, a factor comes in which modifies the whole thing. I'll make circles here for you which I fill in with colour. (Diagram 1)

One can of course have other figures than these; but the yellow must always radiate in some direction and the blue must always contract, as it were, into itself.

The red I might call the balance between them. We can accept the red completely as a surface. We understand it best if we differentiate it from peach-colour, in which it is, you remember, incorporated as an illuminant. Take the two shades side by side, red and peach-colour. What happens when you let the red really influence your soul? You say, this red affects me as a quiet redness. It is not the case with peach-colour. That wants to split up, to spread. It is a nice difference between red and peach-colour. Peach-colour wants to disintegrate, it wants to get ever thinner and thinner till it has disappeared. The red remains, but its effect is one of surface. It does not want to radiate or pile itself up, or to escape; it asserts itself. Lilac, peach-colour, flesh-colour, do not really assert themselves: they want always to change their form, because they want to escape. That is the difference between this colour, peach, which we already have, and red, which belongs to those colours which we have not yet got. But we have not three colours together: blue, red and yellow.

Yesterday we found the four colours: black, white, peach-colour and green; now red, blue and yellow are before us and we have tried to get inside these three colours with our feeling, to see how they interplay with the others. We let the red interplay with a motionless white and we shall easily find the distinction if we now examine what we have brought before the soul. We cannot make such a distinction in the colours we found yesterday as we now have made between yellow, blue and red. We were compelled today to let black and white move in and out of each other when we produced peach-colour. Black and white are “picture-colours” which can do this; let us leave it at that.

Peach-colour we must also leave; it disappears of its own accord, we cannot do anything with it, we are powerless against it. Nor can it help itself, it is its nature to disappear. Green outlines itself, that is it nature. But peach-colour does not demand to be differentiated in itself, but to be uniform, like red; if it were differentiated it would level itself out at once. Just imagine a peach-coloured surface with lumps in it! It would be awful. It would promptly dissolve the lumps, for it always strives for uniformity. If you have an extra green on green, that is a different matter; green has to be applied evenly and has to be outlined. We cannot imagine a radiating green. You can imagine a twinkling star, can't you; but hardly a twinkling tree-frog. It would be a contradiction for a tree-frog to twinkle. Well—that is the case also with peach-colour and green.

If we want to bring black and white together at all we must make them undulate into each other as pictures, even if as moving pictures. But it is different with the three colours we have found today.

We saw that yellow wants, of its own nature, to get paler and paler towards the edges; it wants to radiate; blue wants to heap itself up, to intensify itself, and red wants to be evenly distributed without outline. It wants to hold the middle place between radiating and concentrating; that is red's nature. So you see there is a fundamental difference between colours that are in themselves quiet or mobile, quiet as green, or mobile as mauve, or isolated like black and white. If we want to bring these colours together, it must be as pictures. And red, yellow and blue, in accordance with their inner activity, their inner mobility, are distinguished from the inner mobility of lilac. Lilac tends to dissolve—that is not an inner mobility—it tends to evaporate; red is quiet—it is movement come to rest—but, when we look at it, we cannot rest at one point: we want to have it as an even surface, which, however, is unlimited. With yellow and blue we saw the tendency to vary. Red, yellow and blue differ from black, white, green and peach-colour. You see it from this: Red, yellow and blue have, in contrast to those other colours which have pictorial qualities, another character and if you consider what I have said about them you will find the term I apply to this different character justified. I have called the colours black, white, green and peach-colour pictures—“pictorial colours” (Bildfarben,) I call the colours yellow, red and blue “lusters”—luster colours. (Blanz-farben,) in yellow, red and blue, objects glisten: they show their surfaces outwards, they shine or glisten.

That is the nature and the difference in coloured things. Black, white, green, peach-colour have a pictorial colour, they take their colour from something; in yellow, blue and red there is an inherent luster. Yellow, blue, red are external to something essential. The others are always projected pictures, always something shadowy. We can call them the shadow-colours. The shadow of the spiritual on the psychic is white. The shadow of the lifeless on the spirit is black. The shadow of the living on the lifeless is green. The shadow of the psychic on the living is peach-colour. “Shadow” and “picture or image” are akin.

On the other hand with blue, red and yellow we have to do with something luminous, not with shadow, but with that by which the nature advertises itself outwardly. So that we have in the one case pictures or shadows and in the other, in the colours red, blue and yellow we have what are modifications of illuminants. Therefore I call them lustrous. The things shine, they throw off colour in a way; and therefore these colours have of their own accord the nature of radiation: yellow radiating outwards, blue radiating inwards, and red the balance of the two, radiating evenly. This even radiation shining on and through the combination of white and black in motion produces peach-colour.

Letting yellow flash from one side on to stationary white and blue from the other side, produces green.

You will observe, we come here upon things which upset Physics completely—you can take everything known today in Physics about colours. There one just writes down the scale: Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. One does not mention the reciprocal interplay. Let us run along the scale. You will see that starting with the luster red, the lustrous property ceases more and more till we come to a colour in picture, in shadow-colour, to green. Then we come again to a lustrous colour of an opposite kind to the former, we come to blue, the concentrated luster-colour. Then we must leave the usual physical colour-scale entirely in order to get to the colour which can really not be represented at all except in a state of movement. White and black, pierced by rays of red give peach-colour. If you take the ordinary scheme of the physicist, all you can say is: All right—red, orange, yellow, green blue, indigo, violet ...

Notice I start from a luster, go on to what is properly a colour, on again to a luster and only then come to a colour.

Now, if I did not do that as it is on the physical plane, but were to turn it as it is in the next higher world, if I were to bend the warm side of the spectrum and the cold side so that I drew it like this (Diagram 2) red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet; if I were to bend this stretched-out line of colour into a circle, then I should get my peach-colour up here at the top.

Thus I return again to colour. Colour I and Colour II to and bottom, Luster III and Luster IV left and right. Now there still lurks hidden only that other colour—white and black. You see, if I go up here with the white (from the bottom upwards) it would stick in the green, so the black comes down here to meet it (from the top downwards,) and here at V they begin to overlap; thus, together with the rays from the red, they produce the peach-colour.

I have therefore to imagine a white and a black, overlapping and interplaying (See Diagram 2) and in this way I get a complex colour combination, which however corresponds more closely to the nature of colours than anything you see in the books on Physics.

Now, let us take luster: but luster means that something shines. What shines? If you take the yellow (and you must take it with your feeling and colour-sense, not with the abstract-loving understanding,) you need only say: In receiving the impression of yellow, I am really so moved by it that it lives on within me, as it were. Just think, yellow makes us gay; but being gay means, really, being filled with a greater vitality of soul. We are therefore more attuned to the ego through yellow, in other words we are spiritualized. So, if you take yellow in its original nature, that is, fading outwards, and think of it shining within you, because it is a luster-colour, you will have to agree: Yellow is the luster of the spirit. Blue, concentrating, intensifying itself outwards, is the luster of the psychic. Red, filling space evenly, is the luster of the living. Green is the picture of the living; red, the luster.

You can see this very well if you try to look at a fairly strong red on a white surface; if you look away quickly, you see green as the after-image, and the same surface as a green after-image. The red shines into you and it forms its own picture within you.

But what is the picture of the living in the inner being? You have to destroy it to get an image. The image of the living is the green. No wonder that red luster produces the green as its image when it shines into you.

Thus we get these three colour-natures of quite different kinds. They are the active colour-natures. It is the thing that shines which contains the differentiation; the other colours are quiescent images. We have something here which has its analogy in the Cosmos. We have in the Cosmos the contrast of the Signs of the Zodiac, which are quiescent images, and that which differentiates the Cosmos in the Planets. It is only a comparison, but one which is founded on fact. We may say that we have in black, white, green and peach-colour something whose effect is static; even when it is in movement; something of the fixed stars. And in red, yellow and blue we have something essentially in motion, something planetary. Yellow, blue, red give a nuance to the other colours; yellow and blue tinge white to green, red gives peach colour when it shines into the combined black and white.

Here you see the Colour-Cosmos. You see the world in its inter-action, and you see that we really have to go to colour if we want to study the laws of coloured things. We must not go from colours to something else, we must remain in the colours themselves. And when we have a grasp of colours, we come to see in them what is their mutual relationship, what is the lustrous, the luminous, and what is the shadow-giving, the image-producing element in them.

Just think what this means to Art. The artist knows if he is dealing with yellow, blue and red that he must conjure into his picture something that has a dynamic character, that itself gives character. When he works with peach-colour and green on black and white, he knows that the picture-quality is already there. Such a colour-theory is inherently so completely living that it can be transferred directly form the psychic into the artistic. And if you so understand the nature of the colours that you recognize, as it were, what each colour wants—that yellow wants to be stronger in the middle and to pale off towards the edge, because that is the inherent quality of yellow—then you must do something if you want to fix the yellow, if you want to have a smooth, even yellow surface somewhere. What does one do then? Something must be put into the yellow which deprives it of its own character, of its own will. The yellow has to be made heavy. How can this be done? By putting something into the yellow which gives it weight, so that it becomes gilded. There you have yellow without the yellow, left yellow to a certain extent, but deprived of its nature. You can make an even gold background to a picture, but you have given weight to the yellow, inherent weight; you have taken away its own will; you hold it fast.

Hence the old painters who had a susceptibility to such things found that in yellow they have the luster of the spirit. They looked up to the spiritual, to the light of the spirit in yellow; but they wanted to have the spirit here on earth. They had to give it weight, therefore. If they made a gold background, like Cimabue, they gave the spirit habitation on earth, they evoked the heavenly in their picture. And the figures could stand out of the background of gold, could grow as creations of the spiritual. These things have an inherent conformity to law. You observe, therefore, if we deal with yellow as a colour, of it sown accord it wants to be strong in the centre and shade off outwards. If we want to retain it on an evenly-coloured surface, it is necessary to metallize it. And so we come to the concept of metallized colour, and to the concept of colour retained in matter, of which we shall say more tomorrow.

But you will notice one must first understand colours in their fleeting character before one can understand them in solid substantial form. We shall proceed to this tomorrow. We come in this to what ordinary people—and “extraordinary” people, for that matter—alone call colour. For they know only the colours which are present in solid bodies, and therefore they say—“If one speaks of the spirit, as, for instance, of thought (pretty sentence, isn't it?), then the spirit either is coloured—or not coloured.” Well, then, in this case there is not the least possibility of rising to the volatility of colour!

You will observe that what I have been explaining provides a way to recognize the materialization of the colours in the physical colour-spectrum. It stretches right and left endlessly, that is indefinitely; in the spirit and in the psychic realm, everything is joined up. We must join up the colour-spectrum. And if we train ourselves to see not only peach-colour, but the movement in it; if we train ourselves not only to see flesh-colour in man, but also to live in it; if we feel that our bodies are the dwelling-place of our souls as flesh-colour, then this is the entrance, the gateway into a spiritual world. Colour is that thing which descends as far as the body's surface; it is also that which raises man from the material and leads him into the spiritual.