Главная страница «Первого сентября»Главная страница журнала «Английский язык»Содержание №6/2010

What Is Color?

I want to know one thing. What is color?

Pablo Picasso

Pure white light, such as sunlight, is composed of the visible colors. Sir Isaac Newton discovered this in 1666 by passing a beam of light through a prism.

The light separated into the same progression of colors can be found in the natural rainbow.

Using a second prism, Newton showed that each color in the spectrum is monochromatic – that is, composed of a single, unique wavelength which can’t be further separated into other colors.

Newton’s experiments showed that light can be combined to form different colors. For example, combining blue and yellow light produces a green light that appears identical to the pure green found in a prism spectrum.

Newton found that some color combinations produce pure white instead of colored light. In effect, they complete each other when mixed. These pairs of colors are called complements.

What are the color characteristics?

Color Attributes

There are literally millions of colors! But fortunately, they can be divided into just a few color families. And every color can be described in terms of having three main attributes: hue, saturation and brightness.

Hue is identified as the color family or color name (such as red, green, purple). Hue is directly linked to the color’s wavelength.

Saturation, also called “chroma”, is a measure of the purity of a color or how sharp or dull the color appears.

Brightness, also called “luminance” or “value”, is the shade (darkness) or tint (lightness) of a color. Areas of an evenly colored object in direct light have higher brightness than areas in shadow.

Red protects itself. No colour is as territorial. It stakes a claim, is on the alert against the spectrum.

Derek Jarman



1. That aspect of things that is caused by differing qualities of the light reflected or emitted by them, definable in terms of the observer or of the light, as:

a. The appearance of objects or light sources described in terms of the individual’s perception of them, involving hue, lightness, and saturation for objects and hue, brightness, and saturation for light sources.

b. The characteristics of light by which the individual is made aware of objects or light sources through the receptors of the eye, described in terms of dominant wavelength, luminance, and purity.

2. A substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

3. a. The general appearance of the skin; complexion.

b. A ruddy complexion.

c. A reddening of the face; a blush.

4. The skin pigmentation of a person not categorized as white.

5. colors A flag or banner, as of a country or military unit.

6. colors The salute made during the ceremony of raising or lowering a flag.

7. colors A distinguishing symbol, badge, ribbon, or mark: the colors of a college.

8. colors One’s opinion or position: Stick to your colors.

9. Character or nature. Often used in the plural: revealed their true colors.

10. a. Outward appearance, often deceptive: a tale with the merest color of truth.

b. Appearance of authenticity: testimony that lends color to an otherwise absurd notion.

11. a. Variety of expression.

b. Vivid, picturesque detail: a story with a lot of color in it.

12. Traits of personality or behavior that attract interest.

13. The use or effect of pigment in painting, as distinct from form.

14. Music Quality of tone or timbre.

15. Law A mere semblance of legal right.

16. A particle or bit of gold found in auriferous gravel or sand.

17. Physics A quantum characteristic of quarks that determines their role in the strong interaction.

v. col•ored, col•or•ing, col•ors


1. To impart color to or change the color of.

2. a. To give a distinctive character or quality to; modify. See Synonyms at bias.

b. To exert an influence on; affect: The war colored the soldier’s life.

3. a. To misrepresent, especially by distortion or exaggeration: color the facts.

b. To gloss over; excuse: a parent who colored the children’s lies.

Source: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,
Fourth Edition. Updated in 2009

Colors are forces, radiant energies, that affect us positively or negatively, whether we are aware of it or not.

Johannes Itten

Color Theory

Color theory is a human construct. We need ways to define what we mean by color, and how colors can be ordered, related to each other, and adjusted to become new colors. Color theory attempts to meld together the facts we have about color in a way that gives us common ground to discuss and use colors.

Color is a perception, a response of the brain to data received by the visual systems. Just as artificial flavors evoke a similar smell to real foods, or as artificial sugar stimulates our sense of sweetness, so different combinations of light can be perceived as the same “color”.

What is real is that objects emit light in various mixtures of wavelengths. Our minds perceive those wavelength mixtures as a phenomenon we call color, and this perception creates questions that color theory tries to explain.

Primary colors and mixing of colors

If you mix red, green, and blue light, you get white light. Red, green, and blue (RGB) are referred to as the primary colors of light. Mixing the colors generates new colors. This is additive color. As more colors are added, the result becomes lighter, heading towards white. RGB is used to generate color on a computer screen, a TV, and any colored electronic display device.

When you mix colors using paint, or through the printing process, you are using the subtractive color method. The primary colors of light are red, green, and blue. If you subtract these from white you get cyan, magenta, and yellow. Mixing these three primary colors generates black. As you mix colors, they tend to get darker, ending up as black. The CMYK color system (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) is the color system used for printing.

Color Wheel – A Rainbow of Color

All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites.

Marc Chagall

Hues are arranged around a color wheel in the same order they appear in the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. This wheel illustrates how colors relate to each other and how they can best be used together:

• Complementary color: colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, such as red and green. When placed together, they will heighten and intensify each other.

• Analogous color: colors that are next to each other on the color wheel, such as yellow, yellow-orange, and orange. They will blend together well but add a bit more contrast than a monochromatic color scheme.

• Triad: three colors that are equidistant on the color wheel, such as yellow, red, and blue. Like complementary colors, these three will have a lot of contrast.

• Split complementary: a color plus the two colors on either side of its complement. For example, red and blue-green and yellow-green. The red will visually pop while the greenish colors will be more muted.

• Rectangular tetrad: the two colors on either side of a color plus the two colors on either side of its complement. For example, for the complements red and green, the artist would choose red-orange, red-violet, blue-green, and yellow-green.

• Square tetrad: four colors that are equidistant from each other on the color wheel. A slightly bolder color combination than the rectangular tetrad because the colors are more distinct from each other.

Combinations of these relationships can be used if the artist wants to use even more colors. For example, a group of analogous colors plus their complement (for example, red, red-violet, red-orange, and green) will really make the complement color pop.

Color Vocabulary

HUE – The name of a color as it appears on the color wheel: red, orange, yellow, red-violet, etc.

INTENSITY – The purity of a hue. A hue at its highest intensity has no other color mixed with it. A hue loses its intensity as another color is added to it.

OPAQUE – Having covering power; not permitting paper or other color to show through.

PRIMARY COLORS – Red, yellow, and blue. With these three colors (and black and white) all other colors can be made. The primary colors themselves can not be made by mixing other colors.

REFLECTION – the return of light rays from a surface. When you look in a mirror it reflects the light of your image.

REFRACTION – the bending of light when it passes from one transparent medium to another, such as from air to water.

SECONDARY COLORS – Those colors which are created by the mixture of two primary colors in approximately equal proportions. The secondary colors are orange, violet and green.

SHADE – Hue plus black.

TINT – Hue plus white (or water).

TERTIARY COLORS – Those colors created by the mixture of an adjacent primary and secondary color. The tertiary colors are named by combining the names of the two parent colors, with the primary element listed first: orange + red = red-orange.

WARM COLORS – Red, orange, yellow, (red-violet, yellow-green), warm color tend to advance in visual space.

COOL COLORS – Violet, blue, green, cool colors recede in space.

VALUE – The natural lightness or darkness of a hue or the amount of white or black in a color, pink is a light value of red, navy-blue is a dark value of blue, etc.