Monday, June 09, 2008

What is Colour?

Pigments for sale on market stall, Goa, India
by Dan Brady from Flickr via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve come up with seven different ways of looking at and responding to the question “What is colour?”
  • A scientific perspective – how we experience colour
  • A materials perspective – pigments and dyes
  • A classification perspective – naming chemical and paints
  • A systems perspective – models for thinking about colour
  • A behavioural perspective – mixing colours
  • A cultural and symbolic perspective – in art history
  • An experiential perspective – from representation to emotions
This colour project will provide an introduction to each of these in turn. First a short explanation of what each of the perspectives is about – and, in order to keep things accessible, I'm creating an article which is available on my website which includes the text from this post plus
  • a glossary of words which get used in relation to colour
  • plus a bibliography of books I’ve consulted in developing this article.
When I first started painting, I was most interested in technique. Then as I became more familiar with the media, composition became more important to me. As I started to understand composition expression became more important. And to express myself effectively in painting, I needed to know an astonishing amount about colour.
Stephen Quiller - Color Choices
Bear in mind, I'm also filling in gaps in my own knowledge - but if you’re ready to start learning more about colour with me, read on!

A scientific perspective - how we experience colour

Books about colour seem to divide into those which go off into great big long explanations about physics and the science relating to what is colour – and those which don’t.

The former tend to get a lot of artists switching off just as they’ve opened the book or skipping that chapter and the latter mean would-be artists are not given the opportunity to learn. Either way, many artists can be left with no little or understanding at all of the basic principles about what colour is and how it works.

My own personal perspective is that it’s very useful to understand some of the scientific basics about colour but it’s probably best to avoid the physics lesson so long as people people know where to go to find out if they want to know more. I think it’s also unhelpful and misleading to avoid any explanation at all since this can leaves people with incomplete and/or misconceived ideas about colour.

I’ll be providing an overview of the basic scientific concepts and facts relating to what is colour:
  • The differences between the different characteristics of colour known as:
    • Hue - otherwise known as pure colour
    • Value - otherwise known as lightness or brightness or luminance
    • Intensity – otherwise known as colourfulness or saturation or chroma
  • How colour is made – the differences between:
    • 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
  • How we see and think about colour
    • Colour - what our eye can see
    • Colour - what our brain can remember
I’m not going to deal at all with the details of optics and the physiology of visual perception or the physics of light and wave lengths – other than to note a few basic facts.

A materials perspective - pigments and dyes

What is the colour in paint?

Colour in paint comes from pigments and dyes. All media – oils, watercolours, acrylics, pastels and coloured pencils – are derived from the same pigments and dyes. What varies is the vehicle used to bind the pigment together.

Some pigments and dyes have been around for a very long time and some are modern and the result of recent manufacture. Some colour comes from organic or natural living sources and some comes from inorganic or ‘dead’ sources.

It’s important to know that not all pigments behave in the same way. Consequently it is worth trying to understand a little bit more about the characteristics of different pigments.

This is different from understanding the difference between different paints. Differences between media and between different brands of one medium are significantly influenced by the different formulae used by different manufacturers and the extent to which they vary substances used to bind the pigment into the medium.

Basic concepts include an elementary understanding of:
  • Where organic and inorganic pigments and dyes come from
  • The relationship between pigments and dyes and lightfastness (why you might want to get rid of very old paints!)
  • ‘Old’ pigments still in use – and those which have been replaced
  • ‘New’ pigments created in the laboratories – and why they are a good thing
A classification perspective - naming pigments and paints

People often confuse the names of paint with the names of pigments and dyes. They’re not the same thing – although manufacturers often ‘borrow’ the name of a pigment or dye when creating a new colour of paint.

Unfortunately, some manufacturers also provide paints with names which have nothing whatsoever to do with their ingredients!

This introduction will provide an overview of
  • What’s in a name? Why people get confused.
  • How naming conventions developed
  • How pigments and dyes are classified, named and numbered
  • How paints are named – and why the names of colour paints can sometimes mislead
A systems perspective - the colour wheel

Over the centuries, lots of people have tried to develop different theories or systems for understanding and explaining colour.

The one conclusion I can offer is that no one system ever explains everything. Another conclusion, suggested by some, is that it is better to place practice before theory and to learn by doing rather than learning theory from tutors and by reading books and then practicing it.
In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognise that color deceives continually. To this end, the beginning is not a study of color systems
Josef Albers - Interaction of Color
However, if you want to know a little bit more about some of the different systems which have been developed I’ll be summarising the following systems:
  • the pigment wheel
  • the process wheel
  • the munsell wheel
  • the light wheel
  • the visual wheel
Reference will also be made to sources of more information and suggested ways forward for:
  • People who want to learn more about the theories
  • People who want to discover more about how colours work for themselves
A behavioural perspective - mixing colours

Next I’ll be looking at:
  • How colours behave in a context (otherwise known as ‘why the background matters!)
  • The different ways in which people mix colours as paints.
The latter will include an overview of the different categories of colours. Names and definitions are included in the glossary.
  • The dominance of triadic colours
  • Primary colours – what are they and are they always the same?
  • Secondary colours -
  • Tertiary, quarternary and qiniary colours
  • Complementary colours
  • Analogous colours
  • Partitive colours
  • Simultaneous contrast
  • Split complementary
A cultural and symbolic perspective

This part of the project will provide a very brief overview of the place of colour in the history of art.

Colours in paintings have had a cultural and symbolic meaning for many years – and learning a little about this has enabled me to understand more about what I’m looking at

Concepts covered will include
  • How colour names have developed over time
  • How colour triads vary according to country and culture and time
  • How the significance of a colour often relates to its constituent pigment
  • Meanings associated with different colours
An experiential perspective - from representation to emotions

Colour is used to represent what we see. Colour is used to express what we feel. Both of these perspectives come from our individual experiences of seeing or feeling.

This part of the project will look at issues to do with how we paint and use colour – in a literal and metaphorical sense.


This is the link to this page on Making A Mark - the website where this article is now posted. This includes a glossary of words and terms used in the vocabulary of colour.

I hope you find this outline stimulates your interest! Let me know which aspect interests you most and if there are particular questions which you want answers to. I'll try and develop a FAQs in relation to Colour as we go.......


  1. Whenever I see piles of pigment like that I want to eat it. It's a sort of van Gogh urge.

    This is a fantastic post, Katherine - something I've been meaning to REALLY lean about for some time.

  2. Fine discussion, but did I count seven?

  3. Robyn - you'd get very messy not to mention very sick! :D

    Dianne - Well spotted! Would you believe it was only 4 when I started this morning!

    I remember thinking I could come up with some neat title for if it were seven - such as The seven perspectives on colour of highly effective artists or some such! ;)

    I'll go and do the update now.

  4. an excellent post and it's going to be a fascinating series

    I agree with Robyn! positively edible :)

    I'll enjoy reading these

  5. I very much like the outline. I'm challenged to get cracking on my "intensity" study.

  6. An Interesting link that I came across on color:


    colour field work - relevant to this :>)


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