Although we see in color, have favorite colors, and use color for practical reasons every day, we aren’t necessarily aware of what color is, how we see it, and how we use it. I pulled these 5 principles from my complete course in color theory, because they are stunning aspects that dumbfound many people.
1] Color does not physically exist.
That red ballcap is not really red, grass is not colored green, and the sky is not filled with blue. Color is a perception caused by light waves received by our photoreceptor cells and stimulating our optic nerves to tell our brains that we’re seeing red, green and blue. Nothing is actually colored.
We see color on an object because the object contains pigment that reflects and absorbs light waves. What is reflected by the pigment is the color we perceive.
2] Color is energy.
Color is a property of light. White light, aka visible light, is that part of the energy spectrum that we can see (rather than hear). White light is a blend of various wavelengths from red on one end to violet on the other.
3] Color is dynamic.
Because color is a property of light and is measured like sound in amplitude and wavelength frequency, some colors advance, meaning they are seen more quickly, and others recede. Reds are longer in wavelength than greens or blues, which is why we see red so quickly at a distance. Red is used in highway signage systems to catch our attention when we need to do something immediately, such as STOP!
4] Black and white are colors.
Black, white and grays are colors but are in a different category of color than the 12 hues. Black, white and gray are not hues because they lack chroma, and they’re not browns (chromatic neutrals) for the same reason. Black, white and gray are achromatic (without color). But, in order to perceive them, we need pigment to reflect and absorb light waves. For example, black is perceived when the entire white light spectrum is mostly absorbed by a pigment. Very little light (although there is always some light) is reflected by the pigment. With pigment, we can always make black darker by casting a shadow on it. White is the result of the entire visible light spectrum being reflected back at high amplitude.
5] RGB and RYB are both correct.
There are 2 kinds of light. Direct light is created by a source, such as the sun and stars, fire, light bulbs, electronic devices, and bioluminescent critters. Indirect light is reflected from the surfaces of objects. Direct light is required before indirect light can happen.
Direct light is known as the additive color system, where mixing its 3 primaries, red, green and blue, together creates white light. This is the RGB system which covers all your lighting and digital devices.
Indirect light is known as the subtractive color system and pertains to anything that contains pigment. Its primaries, red, yellow and blue (specifically, cyan (blue), yellow and magenta (red) combine to create black, which absorbs almost all light waves. RYB are the traditional primaries and are also the basis for process color (CMYK) printing. The K, by the way, stands for black in the printing process.
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What questions do you have about color and using it in design and art?