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For other uses, see Color (disambiguation).

Colour is an important part of the visual arts.

Color or colour [1] is the perception of the frequency (or wavelength) of light, and can be compared to how pitch (or a musical note) is the perception of the frequency or wavelength of sound.

It is a perception which in humans derives from the ability of the fine structures of the eye to distinguish (usually three) differently filtered analyses of a view. The perception of colour is influenced by biology (some people are born seeing colours differently or not at all; see colour blindness), long-term history of the observer, and also by short-term effects such as the colours nearby. (This is the basis of many optical illusions.)

The science of colour is sometimes called chromatics. It includes the perception of colour by the human eye, the origin of colour in materials, colour theory in art, and the physics of colour in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Physics of colour[edit]

The colours of the visible light spectrum.

colour wavelength interval frequency interval
red ~ 625-740 nm ~ 480-405 THz
orange ~ 590-625 nm ~ 510-480 THz
yellow ~ 565-590 nm ~ 530-510 THz
green ~ 500-565 nm ~ 600-530 THz
cyan ~ 485-500 nm ~ 620-600 THz
blue ~ 440-485 nm ~ 680-620 THz
violet ~ 380-440 nm ~ 790-680 THz

Continuous optical spectrum
Designed for monitors with gamma 1.5.

Computer "spectrum"
The bars below show the relative intensities of the three
colours mixed to make the colour immediately above.

Colour, frequency, and energy of light.

Colour /nm /1014 Hz /104 cm-1 /eV /kJ mol-1
Infrared >1000 <3.00 <1.00 <1.24 <120
Red 700 4.28 1.43 1.77 171
Orange 620 4.84 1.61 2.00 193
Yellow 580 5.17 1.72 2.14 206
Green 530 5.66 1.89 2.34 226
Blue 470 6.38 2.13 2.64 254
Violet 420 7.14 2.38 2.95 285
Near ultraviolet 300 10.0 3.33 4.15 400
Far ultraviolet <200 >15.0 >5.00 >6.20 >598

Electromagnetic radiation is a mixture of radiation of different wavelengths and intensities. When this radiation has a wavelength inside the human visibility range (approximately from 380 nm to 740 nm), it is known as light within the (human) visible spectrum. The light's spectrum records each wavelength's intensity. The full spectrum of the incoming radiation from an object determines the visual appearance of that object, including its perceived colour. As we will see, there are many more spectra than colour sensations; in fact one may formally define a colour to be the whole class of spectra which give rise to the same colour sensation, although any such definition would vary widely among different species and also somewhat among individuals intraspecifically.

A surface that diffusely reflects all wavelengths equally is perceived as white, while a dull black surface absorbs all wavelengths and does not reflect (for mirror reflection this is different: a proper mirror also reflects all wavelengths equally, but is not perceived as white, while shiny black objects do reflect).

The familiar colours of the rainbow in the spectrum—named from the Latin word for appearance or apparition by Isaac Newton in 1671—contains all those colours that consist of visible light of a single wavelength only, the pure spectral or monochromatic colours.

The frequencies are approximations and given in terahertz (THz). The wavelengths, valid in vacuum, are given in nanometers (nm). A list of other objects of similar size is available.

Important note[edit]

The colour table should not be interpreted as a definite list – the pure spectral colours form a continuous spectrum, and how it is divided into distinct colours is a matter of taste and culture.

Similarly, the intensity of a spectral colour may alter its perception considerably; for example, a low-intensity orange-yellow is brown, and a low-intensity yellow-green is olive-green.

Spectral versus non-spectral colours[edit]

Most light sources are not pure spectral sources; rather they are created from mixtures of various wavelengths and intensities of light. To the human eye, however, there is a wide class of mixed-spectrum light that is perceived the same as a pure spectral colour. In the table above, for instance, when your computer screen is displaying the "orange" patch, it is not emitting pure light at a fixed wavelength of around 600 nm (which is something most computer screens are unable to do). Rather, it is emitting a mixture of about two parts red to one part green light. Were you to print this page on a colour printer, the orange patch on the paper, when lit with white light, would reflect yet another, more continuous spectrum. We cannot see those differences (although many animals can), and the reason has to do with the pigments that make up our colour vision cells (see below).

A useful quantification of this property is the dominant wavelength, which matches a wavelength of spectral light to a non-spectral source that evokes the same colour perception. Dominant wavelength is the formal background for the popular concept of hue.

In addition to the many light sources that can appear to be pure spectral colours but are actually mixtures, there are many colour perceptions that by definition cannot be pure spectral colours due to desaturation or because they are purples (which are a mixture of red and violet light, from either end of the spectrum). Some examples of necessarily non-spectral colours are the achromatic colours (black, gray and white) and other colours such as pink, tan and magenta.

See metamerism (colour) for a basic introduction as to why colour matching challenges exist.

Physical basis of colour[edit]

A light wave can be analyzed as a superposition of sine waves, each of which has a specific frequency and wavelength. The eye gives limited information about the relative intensities of these sine waves (but not their phases — the eye is even more blind to phase than the ear, which can detect phase relationships of sounds only in certain very specific contexts). To understand which particular colour perception will arise from a particular physical spectrum requires knowledge of the physiology of the retina. The human eye is also insensitive to polarization in most cases (though see Haidinger's brush), whereas some fish and mollusks can perceive it.

Colour vision[edit]

Though the exact status of colour is a matter of current philosophical dispute, colour is arguably a psychophysical phenomenon that exists only in our minds. (See Qualia, for some of that dispute.) A "red" apple does not give off "red light", and it is misleading to think of things that we see, or of light itself, as objectively coloured at all. Rather, the apple simply absorbs light of various wavelengths shining on it to different degrees, in such a way that the unabsorbed light which it reflects is perceived as red. An apple is perceived to be red only because normal human colour vision perceives light with different mixes of wavelengths differently—and we have language to describe that difference. In 1931, an international group of experts called the Commission Internationale d'Eclairage (CIE) developed a mathematical colour model. The premise used by the CIE is that colour is the combination of three things: a light source, an object, and an observer. The CIE tightly controlled each of these variables in an experiment that produced the measurements for the system. Although Aristotle and other ancient scientists speculated on the nature of light and colour vision, it was not until Newton that light was correctly identified as the source of the colour sensation. Goethe studied the theory of colours, and in 1801 Thomas Young proposed his trichromatic theory which was later refined by Hermann von Helmholtz. That theory was confirmed in the 1960s and will be described below.

Normalized typical human cone responses (and the rod response) to monochromatic spectral stimuli

The retina of the human eye contains three different types of colour receptor cells, or cones. One type, relatively distinct from the other two, is most responsive to light that we perceive as violet, with wavelengths around 420 nm (cones of this type are sometimes called short-wavelength cones, S cones, or, most commonly but quite misleadingly, blue cones). The other two types are closely related genetically, chemically and in response. Each type is most responsive to light that we perceive as green or greenish. One of these types (sometimes called long-wavelength cones, L cones, or, misleadingly, red cones) is most sensitive to light we perceive as yellowish-green, with wavelengths around 564 nm; the other type (sometimes called middle-wavelength cones, M cones, or misleadingly green cones) is most sensitive to light perceived as green, with wavelengths around 534 nm. The term "red cones" for the long-wavelength cones is deprecated as this type is actually maximally responsive to light we perceive as greenish, albeit longer wavelength light than that which maximally excites the mid-wavelength/"green" cones.

The sensitivity curves of the cones are roughly bell-shaped, and overlap considerably. The incoming signal spectrum is thus reduced by the eye to three values, sometimes called tristimulus values, representing the intensity of the response of each of the cone types.

Because of the overlap between the sensitivity ranges, some combinations of responses in the three types of cone are impossible no matter what light stimulation is used. For example, it is not possible to stimulate only the mid-wavelength/"green" cones: the other cones must be stimulated to some degree at the same time, even if light of some single wavelength is used (including that to which the target cones are maximally sensitive). The set of all possible tristimulus values determines the human colour space. It has been estimated that humans can distinguish roughly 10 million different colours, although the identification of a specific colour is highly subjective, since even the two eyes of a single individual perceive colours slightly differently. This is discussed in more detail below.

The rod system (which vision in very low light relies on exclusively) does not by itself sense differences in wavelength; therefore it is not normally implicated in colour vision. But experiments have conclusively shown that in certain marginal conditions a combination of rod stimulation and cone stimulation can result in colour discriminations not based on the mechanisms described above.

While the mechanisms of colour vision at the level of the cones in the retina are well described in terms of tristimulus values (see above), colour processing and perception above that base level are organized differently. A dominant theory of the higher neural mechanisms of colour vision proposes three opponent processes, or opponent channels, constructed out of the raw input from the cones: a red-green channel, a blue-yellow channel, and a black-white ("luminance") channel. This theory tries to account for the structure of our subjective colour experience (see discussion below). Blue and yellow are considered complementary colours, or opposites: you could not experience a bluish yellow (or a greenish red), any more than you could experience a dark brightness or a hot coldness. The four "polar" colours proposed as extremes in the two opponent processes other than black-white have some natural claim to being called primary colours. This is in competition with various sets of three primary colours proposed as "generators" of all normal human colour experience (see below).

Clinical issues[edit]

If one or more types of a person's colour-sensing cones are missing or less responsive than normal to incoming light, that person has a smaller or skewed colour space and is said to be colour deficient. Another term frequently used is colour blind, although this can be misleading; only a small fraction of colour deficient individuals actually see completely in black and white, and most simply have anomalous colour perception. Some kinds of colour deficiency are caused by anomalies in the number or nature of cones of the various types, as just described. Others (like central or cortical achromatopsia) are caused by neural anomalies in those parts of the brain where visual processing takes place.

Some animals may have more than three different types of colour receptor (most marsupials, birds, reptiles, and fish; see tetrachromat, below) or fewer (most mammals; these are called dichromats and monochromats). Humans and other old-world primates are actually rather unusual in possessing three kinds of receptors.

An unusual and elusive neurological condition sometimes affecting colour perception is synaesthesia.


A normal human is a trichromat (from Greek: tri=three, chroma=colour). In theory it may be possible for a person to have four, rather than three, distinct types of cone cell. If these four types are sufficiently distinct in spectral sensitivity and the neural processing of the input from the four types is developed, a person may be a tetrachromat (tetra=four). Such a person might have an extra and slightly different copy of either the medium- or long-wave cones. It is not clear whether such people exist or that the human brain could actually process the information from such an extra cone type separately from the standard three. However, strong evidence suggests that such people do exist, they are all female by genetic imperative, and their brains gladly adapt to use the additional information. For many species, tetrachromacy is the normal case, although the cone cells of animal tetrachromats have a very different (more evenly-spaced) spectral sensitivity distribution than those of possible human tetrachromats.

Colour perception[edit]

There is an interesting phenomenon which occurs when an artist uses a limited colour palette: the eye tends to compensate by seeing any grey or neutral colour as the colour which is missing from the colour wheel. E.g.: in a limited palette consisting of red, yellow, black, and white, a mixture of yellow and black will appear as a variety of green, a mixture of red and black will appear as a variety of purple, and pure grey will appear bluish.

When the eye shifts attention after viewing a colour for some time, then an afterimage of the complement of that colour (the colour opposite to it in the colour wheel) is perceived by the eye for some time wherever it moves. This effect of colour perception was utilised by Vincent van Gogh, a Post-Impressionist painter.

Effect of luminosity[edit]

Note that the colour experience of a given light mixture may vary with absolute luminosity, because both rods and cones are active at once in the eye, with each having different colour curves, and rods taking over gradually from cones as the brightness of the scene is reduced. This effect leads to a change in colour rendition with absolute illumination levels that can be summarised in the "Kruithof curve".

Cultural influences[edit]

Different cultures have different terms for colours, and may also assign some colour names to slightly different parts of the spectrum, or have a different colour ontology: for instance, the Han character 青 (pronounced qīng in Mandarin and aoi in Japanese) has a meaning that covers both blue and green; blue and green are traditionally considered shades of 青; In more contemporary terms, they are 藍 (lán) and 綠 (lǜ) respectively.

Similarly, languages are selective when deciding which hues are split into different colours on the basis of how light or dark they are. Apart from the black-grey-white continuum, English splits some hues into several distinct colours according to lightness: such as red and pink or orange and brown. To English speakers, these pairs of colours, which are objectively no more different that light green and dark green, are conceived as totally different. An Italian will make the same red-pink and orange-brown distinctions, but will also make a further distinction between blu and azzurro, which English speakers would simply call dark and light blue. To Italian speakers, blu and azzurro are as separate as red and pink or orange and brown.

Colour terms evolve. It is argued that there are a limited number of universal "basic colour terms" which begin to be used by individual cultures in a relatively fixed order. For example, a culture would start with only two terms, meaning roughly 'dark' (covering black, dark colours and cold colours such as blue ) and 'bright' (covering white, light colours and warm colours such as red), before adding more specific colour names, in the order of red; green and/or yellow; blue; brown; and orange, pink, purple, and/or gray. Older arguments for this theory also stipulated that the acquisition and use of basic colour terms further along the evolutionary order indicated a more complex culture with more highly developed technology.

A somewhat dated example of a universal colour categories theory is Basic Colour Terms: Their Universality and Evolution (1969) by Brent Berlin and Paul Kay. A more recent example of a linguistic determinism theory might be Is colour categorisation universal? New evidence from a stone-age culture (1999) by Jules Davidoff et al. The idea of linguistically determined colour categories is often used as evidence for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (Language, Thought, and Reality (1956) by Benjamin Lee Whorf).

Additionally, different colours are often associated with different emotional states, values, or groups, but these associations can vary between cultures. In one system, red is considered to motivate action; orange and purple are related to spirituality; yellow cheers; green creates cosiness and warmth; blue relaxes; and white is associated with either purity or death. These associations are described more fully in the individual colour pages, and under colour psychology.

See also: National colours

Colour constancy[edit]

The trichromatric theory discussed above is strictly true only if the whole scene seen by the eye is of one and the same colour, which of course is unrealistic. In reality, the brain compares the various colours in a scene, in order to eliminate the effects of the illumination. If a scene is illuminated with one light, and then with another, as long as the difference between the light sources stays within a reasonable range, the colours of the scene will nevertheless appear constant to us. This was discovered by Edwin Land in the 1970s and led to his retinex theory of colour constancy.


Note: the following comparison requires an all-digital display setup (commonly, a laptop or DVI-connected LCD) to avoid errors caused by an unfortunate interaction between frequency response and gamma curves.

Compare the visibility of the RGB primary and secondary colours against a white background:

red green blue red+green green+blue red+blue red+green+blue zero light

Again, compare variations on gray backgrounds—#7f7f7f, #5f5f5f & #9f9f9f—the eight RGB primaries are equidistant from #7f7f7f in a 3-d geometrical representation of RGB colour space—a reminder of the importance of background colour for colour perception.

Background = #7f7f7f

red green blue red+green green+blue red+blue red+green+blue zero light

And let's look at black again, for completeness. (Note that your monitor background probably is not perfectly black, as you can see by switching off the monitor.)

Background = #000000

red green blue red+green green+blue red+blue red+green+blue zero light


Measurement and reproduction of colour[edit]

A coloured photo of a sunset

Two different light spectra which have the same effect on the three colour receptors in the human eye will be perceived as the same colour. This is exemplified by the white light that is emitted by fluorescent lamps, which typically has a spectrum consisting of a few narrow bands, while daylight has a continuous spectrum. The human eye cannot tell the difference between such light spectra just by looking into the light source, although reflected colours from objects can look different. (This is often exploited e.g. to make fruit or tomatoes look more brightly red in shops.)

Similarly, most human colour perceptions can be generated by a mixture of three colours called primaries. This is used to reproduce colour scenes in photography, printing, television, and other media. There are a number of methods or colour spaces for specifying a colour in terms of three particular primary colours. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages depending on the particular application.

No mixture of colours, though, can produce a fully pure colour perceived as completely identical to a spectral colour, although one can get very close for the longer wavelengths, where the chromaticity diagram above has a nearly straight edge. For example, mixing green light (530 nm) and blue light (460 nm) produces cyan light that is slightly desaturated, because response of the red colour receptor would be greater to the green and blue light in the mixture than it would be to a pure cyan light at 485 nm that has the same intensity as the mixture of blue and green.

Because of this, and because the primaries in colour printing systems generally are not pure themselves, the colours reproduced are never perfectly saturated colours, and so spectral colours cannot be matched exactly. However, natural scenes rarely contain fully saturated colours, thus such scenes can usually be approximated well by these systems. The range of colours that can be reproduced with a given colour reproduction system is called the gamut. The CIE chromaticity diagram can be used to describe the gamut.

Another problem with colour reproduction systems is connected with the acquisition devices, like cameras or scanners. The characteristics of the colour sensors in the devices are often very far from the characteristics of the receptors in the human eye. In effect, acquisition of colours that have some special, often very "jagged", spectra caused for example by unusual lighting of the photographed scene can be relatively poor.

Species that have colour receptors different from humans, e. g. birds that may have four receptors, can differentiate some colours that look the same to a human. In such cases, a colour reproduction system `tuned' to a human with normal colour vision may give very inaccurate results for the other observers.

The next problem is different colour response of different devices. For colour information stored and transferred in a digital form, colour management technique based on colour profiles attached to colour data and to devices with different colour response helps to avoid deformations of the reproduced colours. The technique works only for colours in gamut of the particular devices, e.g. it can still happen that your monitor is not able to show you real colour of your goldfish even if your camera can receive and store the colour information properly and vice versa.

Pigments and reflective media[edit]

When producing a colour print or painting a surface, the applied paint changes the surface; if the surface is then illuminated with white light (which consists of equal intensities of all visible wavelengths), the reflected light will have a spectrum corresponding to the desired colour. If a dab of paint looks red in white light, that is because the reflection of all non-red wavelengths is interrupted by the pigment, such that only red light is reflected into one's eye.

Structural colour[edit]

Structural colour is a property of some surfaces that are scored with fine parallel lines, formed of many thin parallel layers, or otherwise composed of periodic microstructures on the scale of the colour's wavelength, to make a diffraction grating. The grating reflects some wavelengths more than others due to interference phenomena, causing white light to be reflected as coloured light. Variations in the pattern's spacing often give rise to an iridescent effect, as seen in peacock feathers, films of oil, and mother of pearl, because the reflected colour depends upon the viewing angle.

Structural colour is studied in the field of thin-film optics. A layman's term that describes particularly the most ordered structural colours is iridescence.


  1. ^ The spelling colour is predominant in American English, while colour is used in Commonwealth English. See our/or.

See also[edit]

External links and sources[edit]