What Color Is It?

What is color?

We think of color as an inherent quality of an object, like a red rose or a green apple. But color is about light and how we see things. Have you noticed that a wall in your house can look one color in morning light and another shade in afternoon light? Or that an article of clothing can look one way under a store’s fluorescent light, and another when you wear it in sunlight?

Light is electromagnetic radiation of various wavelengths and frequencies, mostly invisible to humans (radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma ray). The visible wavelengths are colors. For example, red light has a longer wavelength and a shorter frequency than blue light. White light is made of every color of light; in that sense, white is not itself a color. We see this when light passes through a prism. White light enters on one side, and exits the other side divided into its component colors. A rainbow is a beautiful but less precise version of this.
Photo by Lucie Dawson on Unsplash

An object’s color depends on which wavelengths the object reflects. A green apple reflects green light and absorbs the other colors. A white object reflects all colors, absorbing none. A black object absorbs all colors, reflecting none. That’s why a black object in the sun gets hotter than a white object. Red, blue, and yellow are called the primary colors because they cannot be made from other colors.  They can be combined to make all other colors, such as the three secondary colors: violet (red + blue), green (blue + yellow), and orange (yellow + red). But if you combine the primaries on a palette, you will produce brownish gray “mud,” not white.  Maulucioni, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.

You may wonder why color printer cartridges use cyan, yellow, and magenta instead of the pure primary colors. And why your LCD TV screen was made of red, green, and blue pixels. There are differences between the three primary colors of light and the three colors that will produce desired outputs, like realistic color images on your TV screen. To make things even more interesting, LED lighting can combine intense red, green, and blue light to create white light.

How do we see color?

Light enters our eyes through the pupils and gets focused by the lens onto the retina.  The retina has millions of rods and cones that are sensitive to light and colors. But sometimes different people perceive color differently. Remember the dress?

Some saw a black and blue dress while others saw gold and white. A couple years later, we argued about the color of this Vans sneaker:

Do you see gray and teal or pink and white?  If we can’t agree on the color of a dress or a shoe, no wonder we can’t agree on politics.

Our perceptions of color can be affected by surrounding shapes and colors. Take a look at the small squares.

They are identical, yet one looks darker than the other.

What does color mean?

Why are red roses associated with passion and romantic love but white roses with elegance? Some of these connections seem arbitrary, especially when they change over time and have different meanings in different cultures. Are there objective properties of colors? Does color influence our emotions and behaviors? Environmental psychologists say that a red wall can make us think a room is warmer than it really is and that green promotes creativity and productivity. Then there is the theory that pink is calming, which led the University of Iowa to paint its visiting locker room pink. Let’s just say there is more to color than meets the eye.

And the Color of the Year is…

Pantone is a company that created a color matching and numbering system (PMS) to provide consistency across all uses. In other words, Pantone Tangerine Tango #17-1463 is exactly the same color when used by a graphic designer and a paint company. For over 20 years, Pantone has picked a Color of the Year based on trend analysis and new influences. It was Classic Blue in 2020 and Living Coral in 2019. So what is the 2021 Color of the Year? Ultimate Gray and Illuminating (a yellow). Wait, the color of the year is…two colors? Come on Pantone, pick a lane.

—– P.S. The dress is black and the sneaker is pink. While you are checking them out on Twitter, follow our tweets @ArtandDesign101.

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