- The defining characteristics of colour
- How colour is made
- How we see and think about colour
Spectrum of ColourThe literature on the science of colour and the discovery of how it works is vast! As a result, art books explaining about colour have tended to take one of two paths. They either start with a hefty, very scientific chapter on the science of colour with lots of history, charts and graphs – or they ignore it completely and move straight to explaining the colour wheel.
Either way, I suspect a lot of artists have ducked the science of colour or not had access to the main messages. I’ve never been great at physics and I’ve certainly tended to be one of the former in the past! While writing this post, I’ve also been rather surprised by the number of books which ignore scientific colour basics - and how many gaps in my knowledge I've actually filled!
My personal view is that it’s very useful for artists to know about some of the basic scientific facts about colour – what it’s made up of and how it is created – but that it’s probably best to try and avoid a physics lesson!
What I'm trying to do is produce an outline of the science of colour which works for people who want to know more about colour (like me), mainly so we can avoid having incomplete or misconceived notions about colour. For example, one of the reasons I started this colour projects is that I didn't know what I didn't know!
In doing so, I’ll be focusing on what is known, rather than how it was discovered or by who or exactly how or why it works. So I'm not going to focus on the history of scientific development or the intricacies of the scientific background to the discovery of colour at all!
However for those who do find these things fascinating and/or want to know more after reading this and the more extended article on my website, I’ve included a number of references to technical articles relating to colour on the internet in a new information site called Colour science, systems and models - Resources for Artists.
I’ve also transferred most of the science references previously on the original information site Colour - Resources for Artists - which now leaves that looking a bit more straightforward.
I can also recommend Colour by Edith Anderson Feisner; Color – right from the start by Hilary Page and Colour Mixing Bible by Ian Sidaway.
For the rest of us, let's just assume that it's very useful to know about the end result without knowing too much about how it happened - and take the rest on trust!
What now follows is a shorter version of an article which I'm including on my website page Making A Mark Guide - Colour. I'm planning to work on the article some more as the project progresses. Do let me have any comments - particularly about aspects you find confusing or surprising - or that I've got wrong.
The Defining Characteristics of Colour - Hue, Value and Intensity
The most sophisticated machine for differentiating colours is the human eye. But how do we manage to tell one colour is different to another? What makes them different?
Hue, value and intensity are the three essential attributes of perceived colour – the colour we see with our eyes. These are also the defined ways in which the differences in colour can also be described and defined in a scientific way. These are described below. Both hue and value are also very important elements which contribute to the overall effectivess of any composition.
Hue is pure colour – one without tint or shade – and is used to describe the actual colour of an object or material. In everyday use, it’s another name for colour as we normally use the word in everyday language. Local colour is the term artists use to describe pure colour of a substance which is unaffected by the impact of light.
People have different views about what a colour is. If you asked 20 people to all produce a square coloured red, they’d all produce a slightly different colour of red. Color-Aid papers can be used to identify a hue correctly. Coloured paper was used by Josef Albers when he was developing his ideas about colour and writing Interaction of Color
Pigment/paint manufacturers sometimes use the word ‘hue’ when they’re replaced an original ingredient, which was used as the name for the paint, with a more modern (and often less toxic) substitute which achieves the same hue as the original paint. So for example, a paint may now be known as Cadmium Yellow (hue) even though it contains no cadmium.
Value - otherwise known as lightness or luminance – is a measure of where a particular colour lies along the lightness–darkness axis. Value is also known as the tone (or tonal value). It’s often confused with but is not the same as brightness (which is actually about intensity).
Pure hues naturally vary in value and can be found in different places on the value scale. From light to dark they rank as follows: yellow, yellow-orange, orange, yellow-green-yellow, red-orange, yellow-green, green-yellow-green, red, green, red-violet, green-blue-green blue-green, blue-green-blue, blue, violet, blue-violet. To make hues of equal value they need to be adjusted using either white or black.
Intensity is also known as colourfulness or saturation or chroma. A ‘saturated colour’ is the purity of a hue at its maximum intensity, at its most colourful. Thus, a highly colourful object is vivid and intense. In contrast, a less colourful object appears more muted, closer to gray. With no colourfulness at all, a colour is a “neutral” gray. I tend to think of intensity as being ‘in your face’ and its opposite as being about ‘subtlety’.
- colorfulness is the difference perceived between the color of an object and gray.
- saturation defines the degree of purity of a colour relative to the brightness of a pure hue
- chroma strength is a measure of a hue or colour’s relative purity or brightness – one to another and compared to white which is the most intense chroma.
- lighter value hues have a stronger chroma than darker value hues.
The colour that we see is created from light. If there is no light, there is no colour.
The colour that we create on paper or canvas is different and operates in a different way. This is because it’s created from pigments or dyes.
The colour of light
Colour is actually a form of energy. The colour that we see is created from light. When light hits a surface, some of the light is reflected and some of it is absorbed. What we actually see is the colour produced by the light waves which are reflected.
Colour, in very simple terms is created through one of three processes:
- Additive processing – which relates to all things visual and digital – which includes everything you are looking at right now).
- Subtractive processing – which relates to pigments and paint
- Partitive processing – which is based on a viewer’s reaction to colour when colours are placed next to one another. This is an important way of understanding colour because the reality is that the norm is that we always see colour in the context of other colours.
Additive processing is used for mixing the different colours in light. Mixing colours increases brightness and lightness until it ultimately produces white light. White light is the colour of light at midday. It contains all the wavelengths in the visible range of the spectrum.
Additive processing is responsible for the colour of everything we see and the presentation of digital colour.
Additive processing colours
Colour is made up of light waves. The colour that we actually see is what remains when light hits the particular materials in a surface. The light waves associated with that surface are reflected back and the rest are absorbed by the surface. So a pink surface is one which reflects pink light waves and a purple one is one which reflects purple light waves. Black is the colour created when all light waves are absorbed and white is created when all light waves are reflected.
Primary light colours are red, blue and green (RBG). More accurately, they are blue-violet, green and orange-red which all combine to make white light. Mixing the lightwaves of these three colours increases brightness and lightness and ultimately produces white light.
In simple terms, the human eye can physically see how additive processing works when stage lights with different coloured gels are mixed on one spot on a stage.
The subtractive process is used for combining pigments and dyes, paints and printers inks. The bottom line is that mixing colours in a subtractive process absorbs light waves and diminishes lightness.
Subtractive processing - cyan, magenta, yellow
used in CMYK printing process
used in CMYK printing process
Primary colours are those which cannot be made by mixing other pigments and are red, blue and yellow - and cyan, magenta yellow for printers inks. However if all the primaries were mixed together they would create black. As more and more colours are mixed together they absorb more light waves and reflect less back – until the end result which is black. Although as we all know many of us have been known to take a long diversion making mud colours first!
Subtractive processing is one of the main reasons why artists often talk about trying to achieve ‘clean’ colours.
Partitive colour mixing is a perceptual process. The eye creates the colour based on the impression created when one colour is placed next to another colour. This is an important way of understanding colour because in normal circumstances we always see colour in the context of other colours – but in art we control that process.
Partitive processing is important to artists – because we choose how we place colours on canvas or paper and what we place next to them.
If dots of different colours are juxtaposed, your eye performs the mixing process and they can appear to be mixed in an additive process – which increases brightness and lightness. Seurat was famous for painting in dots – called pointillism. Partitive coloured dot mixing also occurs in colour printing where what is produced is made up of lots and lots of different coloured dots.
How we see and think about colour
Our experience is partly down to the physics of how light behaves (see above) and partly down to the physiology of how we physically perceive and register colour. I’m going to focus on two aspects of how we experience colour - colour vision (what our eye can see and brain can process) and colour memory (what our brain can remember).
Colour Vision - what the eye can see and the brain can process
You’ll know that vision is a function of both the eye and the brain and colour is perceived using your capacity for colour vision. You can have faults arise in either which can mean that your visual processing of what you can see is less than perfect (e.g. colour blindness). What you may be less clear about is that your vision is also a response to light waves – but you don’t need to know how that works – just that it does!
Example of an Ishihara colour test (numeral 2)
This file licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License
This file licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License
Our capacity to perceive and notice colour is affected by a number of factors which include:
- The level of illumination.
- The nature of the media producing the colour (matte carpet; shiny metal)
- Colours reflected by adjacent objects
- A colour’s relationship to other colours present around and about an object
- The way we choose to value a colour or not according to our culture (of which more later).
Many a time I’ve heard painting tutors asking students (and me!) to describe the colour they can see – usually because the way we’ve represented it on paper is quite a long way from reality. I’ve learned over time that we can all get much better at both seeing colour and describing colour – but only if we practice! There are some tips contained in the paper on my website.
Colour memory - what the brain can remember
You only need to know one thing. People tend to have very poor memories for colour. This is the reason why we have to carry around a piece of curtain fabric or wall paper when trying to match colours when decorating!
For an artist, this means for the artist that unless you have a highly trained colour memory:
- You won’t be able to carry the memory of a colour that you’ve seen in your head for very long. You certainly won’t remember all the nuances of colour that you can see.
- It really doesn’t matter how many formulae for making colours that you read about, the reality is that you won’t be able to remember them.