Color Notes (The FUNdamentals)

Color in a picture is like enthusiasm in life.

-Vincent Van Gogh

Photo source: Photo of Gene Davis’s Black Balloon painting, taken by me in Crystal Bridges Museum, Arkansas

What is color?

Life would be boring without color, that is for sure.

But have you ever considered what really color is? How do we understand it, create it and express it?

According to the dictionary, color is the property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way the object reflects or emits lightSo what does that mean?

In the late 1600s, Sir Isaac Newton (yes! The father of the law of gravitation conducted research on color) did numerous research and experiments and he discovered that pure white light (example : sunlight) is composed of the visible colors. We still do this experiments in highschool labs; “The Prism Experiment”. Although he discovered many colors, he identified 7 main colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. He continued his experiments and used a second prism  found that some color combinations produce pure white instead of colored light. They complete each other when mixed. These pairs of colors are called complements.  You can visit here if you want to learn more about this.

So why does an object have a color? Having a color is a result of a selective absorption or reflection of visible lights from the environment. To understand the answer, first you need to know that there are 3 things needed to “see” color:

  • Light = a candle, a light bulb, the sun
  • Material = The colored object
  • Receiver = Our Eye

Light is made of waves produced by the light source and these waves exist in different lengths (the wavelengths); and certain colors have certain wavelengths. For example, red has a different wavelength than blue. When light strikes an object, certain wavelengths (colors) are absorbed and the rest are reflected. The colors that we see are those reflected back to us. So, this means, when you see a red apple, only reflected wavelength is red’s.

Color in History

Even if colors have been discovered in the 1600s, humans have always been aware of “pigments”. Pigments are natural coloring materials. Charcoal, Limonite, Hematite, Red Ochre, Yellow Ochre, Umber, Burnt Bones and White Calcite are examples of natural pigments. Humans also used natural binders, such as spit, blood, urine, vegetable juices and animal fat to mix them with pigments and to produce paint. They used those paints on cave walls, trees, stones, etc.

Cueva de los Manos has been discovered in Patagonia, Argentina. It dates between 9,500 and 13,000 years old and it is a great example of a colorful cave painting made by natural pigments.

Photo source: UNESCO

The Greeks and Romans explored some new binders: wax, resin and eggs. Egyptians discovered Malachite, Azurite and Carmine Lake. Ultramarine Blue was discovered in the middle ages and Virgin Mary used it as a symbol of purity. In the 15th century, Walnut and Linseed oil replaced egg as a binder. This was a huge improvement for the artists’ society.


  • Color Wheel

It is a diagram which illustrated to have a better understanding of relationship between colors. The 12-hue model below is the most common color wheel.

Source: Faber Castell

There are 3 Primary Colors: Red, Blue and Yellow. These cannot be created by mixing any other colors on the wheel.

There are 3 Secondary Colors: Orange, Green and Violet. If you mix two of primaries, you will get a secondary color. Red+Yellow=Orange; Red+Blue=Violet; Yellow+Blue=Green.

There are 6 Tertiary Colors, which are created by mixing a primary color with its neighbouring secondary color.

  • 3 Dimensions of Color

Hue: Red, Yellow, Blue, Green etc. Basically, when you use the term “color”, you are referring to its hue.

Value: Black and White. The lightness or darkness of color.

Saturation: Brightness or intensity.

Reading Recommendations :

  1. A short TedEx Talk on physics behind colors
  2. A great source provided by Pantone, one of the color pioneers
  3. Color Measurement information provided by HunterLab
  4. One of my favorites: The Story of Color in Textiles
  5. A very interesting hands-on experiment from an artist’s perspective

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