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The Science of Color in Non-Technical Terms
Color. It's all around us. It brightens our life. Artists create beauty with it. But what is it and how do we define it?
Scientists and artists have been wondering about and studying color for thousands of years. From Plato's creation poem to Sir Isaac Newton's experiments refracting light through a prism to modern day scientific tools for measuring color, the study of color goes on.
Without getting into too much technical detail, we have attempted to somewhat comprehensively cover the topic of color. We hope the person interested in color, who doesn't have a strong scientific background, can learn about and appreciate this vast subject.
The amazing thing is that we have only three types of color receptors (cones) in our eyes. With just these three types, we can see hundreds of different colors and distinguish between two, only slightly different, colors.
Complicating the study of color is the fact that people perceive color differently. This presented a problem when the scientific community was trying to devise a system of mathematically defining color. The problem was solved by the creation of the Standard Observer, that is, a system of defining how the "average" person sees color. Using this information, finally in 1931, the CIE (International Commission on Illumination) was able to devise a mathematical system where we can reference a color and everyone agrees on exactly what color it is.
But it took hundreds of years of scientists and artists arguing and studying color to get to that point. Early color science defined the primary colors (or primitive colors, as they called them), as being light and dark or black and white. From these two "colors," all other colors were somehow created. In the early 18th century, Sir Isaac Newton defined seven primary colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Later that century, scientists finally settled on three primary colors, but what were they? The debate continued until modern times when we finally understood the difference between additive and subtractive colors. With this understanding, it has become possible to create almost any light source color on a television or computer monitor and any pigment or dye color, as in a color printer or a page in a magazine, by using only three primary colors.
See the bottom of this page for links to different aspects of the science of color.
Definition of Common Color Terms
Confused about color terminology? Here a list of definitions for common color terms.
The degree to which a color appears to reflect light.
How strong a color appears. A red tomato is high in chroma. Pastel colors are low.
An abstract model used as a way of defining color. There are many color models.
Two colors which are opposite each other in a color model.
A range of grays, from white to black, showing intensity only and no other color. This is what we commonly think of as "black and white," although that is not technichally correct. A black and white image consists of only the colors black and white.
The actual color (red, orange, yellow, etc.)
The degree to which colors appear to reflect light.
Brightness of a color.
A set of three colors from which all other colors can be made.
How strong or dominant the hue is.
A color which has been darkened by adding black.
The full range of colors which are visible when light is dispersed, as it is when passed through a prism.
A color which has been diluted with white so that it is no longer at maximum saturation.
How light or dark a color is. (Same as Value.)
How light or dark a color is. (Same as Tone.)
Lots More Color Information
Select a topic of interest to you from the links below and explore the fascinating field of color.
Speed of Light
Additive and Subtractive Colors
CIE 1931 Color Space
Spinning Color Top
Glossary of Color Terms
History of Color Science
Motion After Image
Munsell Color System
Color Optical Illusions
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