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A spectral color is a color that is evoked by a single wavelength of light in the visible spectrum, or by a relatively narrow band of wavelengths. Every wavelength of light is perceived as a spectral color, in a continuous spectrum; the colors of sufficiently close wavelengths are indistinguishable.
The division used by Isaac Newton, in his color wheel, was Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet; a mnemonic for this order is Roy G. Biv. In modern divisions of the spectrum, indigo is often omitted; see indigo#Classification as a spectral color for details.
One needs color vision at least trichromatic for there to be a distinction between spectral and non-spectral colours: trichromacy gives a possibility to perceive both hue and saturation in the chroma. In color models capable to represent spectral colors, such as CIELUV, a spectral color has the maximal saturation among all colors of the same hue.
In color spaces
In color spaces which include all, or most spectral colors, they form a part of boundary of the set of all real colors. If luminance is counted, then spectral colors form a surface, otherwise their locus is a curve in a two-dimensional chromaticity space.
Theoretically, only RGB-implemented colors which might be really spectral are its primaries: red, green, and blue, whereas any other (mixed) color is inherently non-spectral. But due to different chromaticity properties of different spectral segments, and also due to practical limitations of light sources, the actual distance between RGB pure color wheel colors and spectral colors shows a complicated dependence on the hue. Due to location of R and G primaries near the almost "flat" spectral segment, RGB color space is reasonably good with approximating spectral orange, yellow, and bright (yellowish) green, but is especially poor in reaching a visual appearance of spectral colors between green and blue, as well as extreme spectral colors. The sRGB standard has an additional problem with its "red" primary which is shifted to orange due to a trade-off between purity of red and its reasonable luminance, so that the red spectral became unreachable. Some samples in the table below provide only rough approximations of spectral and near-spectral colors.
CMYK is usually even poorer than RGB in its reach of spectral colors, with notable exception of process yellow, which is rather close to spectral colors due to aforementioned flatness of the spectral locus in the red–green segment.
Note that spectral color are universally included to scientific color models such as CIE 1931, but industrial and consumer color spaces such as sRGB, CMYK, and Pantone, do not include any of spectral colors.
Table of spectral or near-spectral colors
Most of the colors listed do not reach the maximal (spectral) colorfulness, or are not usually seen with it, but they can be saturated enough to be perceived closely to their dominant wavelength spectral colors. Ranges of wavelengths and frequencies are only approximate.
Wavelengths and frequencies in gray indicate dominant wavelengths and frequencies, not actual range of spectrum composing a specified color, which extends farther to both sides and is averaged by receptors to give a near-spectral appearance.
light source, or dye
|Wavelength, nm||Frequency, THz||Hue
|Red||740–625||405–479||A traditional, broad color term, which includes some nearby non-spectral hues. The short-wave boundary can extend to 620 or even about 610 nanometres|
|• Extreme spectral red = red (CIE RGB)||×||740||405||?||Exact spectrum has more influence on luminance than on chromaticity in this band; chromaticities are almost the same for these two variants|
|• red (Wide-gamut RGB primary)||×||≈ 700||≈ 428||?|
|• Helium–neon laser||×||634||473||?|
|• Some carmine dyes||×||NIR–602||NIR–497||?||Near-spectral, but other parts of carmine (color) are purple|
|• red (sRGB primary)||614–609||488–492||0°||Noticeably non-spectral|
|0°–30°||The short-wave (yellowish) part corresponds to amber, the long-wave (reddish) side nears (or includes) RGB red above.|
|A traditional color term|
|• Sodium-vapor lamp||≈ 589||≈ 508||?|
|• yellow (NCS)||?||?||50°||Gold has almost identical chromaticity at h = 51°|
|• Munsell 5Y for V = 10, C = 22||≈ 577||≈ 519||?|
|• process (canary) yellow||?||?||56°|
|• yellow (sRGB secondary)||≈ 570||?||60°|
|• Chartreuse yellow||?||?||68°|
|Lime||≈ 564||?||≈ 75°||May be classified as either green or yellow|
|Green||565–???||530–???||A traditional, broad color term|
|• Chartreuse green||?||?||90°|
|• Bright green||≈ 556||?||96°|
|• Harlequin||≈ 552||?||105°|
|• green (sRGB primary)||≈ 549||≈ 547||120°||Noticeably non-spectral|
|• green (Wide-gamut RGB primary)||×||≈ 525||≈ 571||?||Almost spectral|
|• Spring green (sRGB definition)||×||?||?||150°||May lie rather far from the spectrum|
|• green (NCS)||×||?||?||160°|
|• Munsell 5G for V = 4, C = 29||×||≈ 503||≈ 597||(?)≈ 163°
|Sometimes included (or overlaps) with blue, terminological distinction between the two is inconsistent|
|• Turquoise Blue[sic]||×||?||?||≈ 175°||Most of "turquoise" lies far away of the spectrum|
|• cyan (sRGB secondary)||×||?||?||180°||Lie rather far from the spectrum|
|• process cyan||×||?||?||193°|
|A traditional, broad color term, which used to include cyan|
|• blue (NCS)||×||?||?||197°||Lies rather far from the spectrum|
|• Azure (sRGB definition)||×||≈ 488||≈ 614||≈ 210°||May lie rather far from the spectrum|
|• Munsell 5B for V = 5, C = 20||×||≈ 482||≈ 622||(?)≈ 225°
|• blue (RGB primary)||466–436||?||240°
|May be classified as indigo or (if indigo is omitted) as violet|
|Indigo||≈ 446||≈ 672||(?)≈ 243°
|Definition is controversial, this wavelength least disputably belongs to "indigo"|
|up to 277°
|Far spectral violet is very dim and rarely seen. The term also extends to purples|
Among some of the colors that are not spectral colors are:
- Grayscale (achromatic) colors, such as white, gray, and black
- Any color obtained by mixing a gray-scale color and yet another color (either spectral one or not spectral), such as pink, which is a mixture of a reddish color and white.
- Purple colors, which in color theory include line of purples colors (such as, approximately, magenta and rose), and other variations of purple and variations of pink.
- HSL and HSV do not qualify because many spectral colors lie rather far from its gamut.
- Samples (allegedly in sRGB) currently rely on Wikipedia data which sometimes use poor, unprofessional sources, misinterpretation of sources, or occasionally contain original researches.
- Values for the hue (HSL and HSV or an extrapolation, where necessary) currently rely on Wikipedia data which are prone to miscalculation and other irregularities. Also note that RGB is not an absolute color space, and certain specific standard (such as sRGB) is necessary to map RGB hues to near-spectral colors.
- Thomas J. Bruno, Paris D. N. Svoronos. CRC Handbook of Fundamental Spectroscopic Correlation Charts. CRC Press, 2005. http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/vision/specol.html#c1
- A proprietary color space
- Bisulca, Christina (2008). "UV-Vis-NIR reflectance spectroscopy of red lakes in paintings". 9th International Conference on NDT of Art. ndt.net. Retrieved 2013-06-19.
- http://www.cis.rit.edu/research/mcsl2/online/munsell_data/all.dat and commons:File:CIE1931xy blank.svg
- Linearly interpolated between two tabulated values.
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- Different definitions of RGB give significantly different wavelengths for blue primary, but this does not change the chromaticity greatly.