One of the key elements of visual concepts is color. Colors, lines, shapes, textures and our past visual experiences altogether define the registration of a visual construct in our brain. Colors are very powerful because they communicate critical information about the world and their interactions with each other and proportional values can manipulate, exaggerate or minimize shapes and forms of a visual construct and change our emotional response to an experience. Colors are also very personal to each individual as we each have unique visual perceptions, backgrounds, social bias and memory associations of each color.
There are several components in defining colors and multiple color systems throughout the history that have visually organized colors into categories and other mediums based on familiarity, value, temperature and even emotional response and device like computer and web colors versus paint and fabric colors. Throughout the history, there have been multiple attempts to define and make sense of colors and their combinations and interactions like the Leonardo Da Vinci book "Treatise of Painting" and of course the Isaac Newton color theory. It was later in the 20th century with artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Josef Albers that we made major advances color science and color design principals.
The Science of Colors
Colors have always been a big part of defining objects and the world around us from ancient years assigning meanings to particular hues and religious beliefs to more advances later on and understanding the science of color that flourished during the Renaissance period starting in the 14th century. The Linear Perspective invented by Brunelleschi advanced the studies of colors during the Renaissance period and showed depth and proportions in paintings to achieve perspective drawing using colors. The Aerial Perspective of Leonardo Da Vinci showed how objects appear lighter, grayer and bluer when they recede in the distance which made it possible for the artists to show progression and a more realistic visual appearances of objects and shapes in their art. Studying nature, light and how human body and eyes interact with light and color during this period led to these new findings and discoveries about colors that are still used and practiced by many artists and designers around the world.
To truly understand color, we must understand the interaction of light with color. Light becomes visible to us when it hits the surface of an object. Visible light is the wavelengths that are visible to human eyes and a form of electromagnetic radiation or waves of energy descried by frequency and length. In the spectrum ultraviolet, wavelengths are measured by nm, nanometers, which is one millionth of a millimeter. When light (wavelengths) hits a surface, a sequence of colors is seen. Shortly before 400 nm is reached, we see violet blue light and then as the wavelengths gradually increase to around 555 nm, colors become brighter and blue and then blue-green and then green-yellow hues appear. The hue shifts to orange red as the brightness slowly deceases. We can see colors only up to about 700 nm as the vision disappears when wavelengths hit that distance. So before 400 nm and after about 700 nm, it's too dark for the human eyes to see and the wavelengths between 300 to 400 nm fade the pigments and intensity of colors.
The light that contains all visible Wavelengths is called white light and when it passes through a solid geometric shape, all the visible spectrum is projected on the surface. As we mentioned in our previous article about forms and light, the light that emits from a source like sun or electric light enters the eye through Cornea. Light can either enter the eyes directly when we look at a source or indirectly when the light has interacted with a materiel. When light hits a surface, a combination of wavelengths that are not absorbed are reflected back to our eyes and we see the colors of the object. So objects really don't have any color attributes in the visual spectrum and neither do the wavelengths themselves. The colors that our eyes see are the results of the light interaction with an object as they are perceived by our visual senses (and brain) when a combination of wavelengths are reflected off of an opaque object's surface or when these wavelengths are transmitted through a transparent object. Because colors are perceived by our vision and brain, we each experience colors differently and can have different perceptions of the same color.
Hue, Color & Palette
According to the Munsell color system, there are three attributes of color: Hue, Value and Chroma. These attributes vary by name and to some extent context across different color systems and theories but mostly every color is defined by its hue, value and the intensity of its color or Chroma.
- Hue is the color family like red, yellow and blue. When we speak of colors, sometimes we use these words interchangeably but actually they don't mean the same thing. Hue has one dimension and that is the family color but each color has a hue, a value and an intensity number (Chroma).
- The value of a color defines how light or dark a color is like a tint pastel green versus dark forest green in the color charts. Visual perception is very sensitive to the changes in lightness and darkness and a deep red like maroon for example is perceived and digested very differently from light red (pink) even though they share a family hue of red. The value of a color is also responsible for the light reflectacnce value (LRV) of a color like we know that a lighter and higher value color has a higher LRV than a darker and lower value color.
- The third dimension, Chroma or pigment, defines the intensity of a color and how rich a color is. When combining any of the 5 neutral basis with a true color (like a true red), the Chroma defines the neutral base color to the hue color ratio. The more base there is in a color combination, the more muted a color is which usually sits at the lower left side of the Munsell hue charts and the more hue color in the ratio results in a stronger saturation or higher Chroma.
Additive & Subtractive Colors
Different color systems have different primary colors, some four primary colors and some three. Red, blue and yellow are among the primary colors of many theories from which other secondary and tertiary colors are found. The concept of primary versus secondary colors is further defined by additive and subtractive primary colors.
- Additive primary colors always produce a lighter color when mixed together. Blue, red and green are additive primary colors.
- Magenta, yellow and cyan are subtractive colors because any combination of any of these colors produces a darker color as more light is absorbed and less is reflected off of a surface.
Of course we cannot discuss colors without admiring and learning from one of the masters of color, Claude Monet. His understanding of how colors can attract attention and using them in perfect proportion to each other and as a whole is quite admirable. His paintings tell the stories of nature with harmonious movement of colors around the canvas. The end result contains multiple hues and values of colors but done in a subtle way that each color portrays a part of the whole story and is given meaning and definition only by its surrounding colors. In some areas we can see how Monet used colors like red to grab our attention like the red color of the flowers in the Water Lilies painting above that is the focal point of the painting despite the smaller size of the flowers compared to the background. Colors are arranged with perfect harmony and attention to warm and cool temperatures of the perceived hues as the red color that is placed next to the cool hues of blue and blue green grabs more attention. When a color is placed against its opposite value or hue it grabs attention and appears more dominant than if it was placed next to other similar colors. Monet used that to create harmony by placing similar hues and values next to each other and grabbed our attention by playing with the opposite colors and values. Placing a cool color on another cool color of the similar value creates harmony and a sense of consistency but when we place a warm color on top of a cool color, each hue tries to compete for our attention and the cool color appears cooler and the warm color appears warmer.
"Color is my day-long obsession, joy and torment." Monet
Edited by Creative Director- Aidin Belganeh