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Color Science

Most of us take color science for granted. Have you ever stopped to consider the effect of color in your life? What it means? Where it comes from? What life would be like without color?

Color science is our visual interpretation of how light reflects off of surfaces. Color is that portion of the visible spectrum of light that is reflected back from a surface. The amount of light that a surface reflects or absorbs determines its color. In particular, black surfaces absorb all light, while white surfaces reflect all light. For colors that aren’t black or white, the color you see is the only one that hasn’t been absorbed by the surface. For example, if you see a red vase, every color except red has been absorbed by the vase and only red is reflected back to your eye.

Sir Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727), the English physicist, mathematician and natural philosopher, was the first to discover the nature of color. While Newton is best known for the story of the apple that prompted his theory of gravity, he was also a pioneering scientist in the field of optics. Newton found that when white light passes through a prism, it breaks into the colors of the spectrum (or rainbow): red, orange, yellow, green, blue (light), indigo (dark blue) and violet (purple). He also discovered that passing that light through a second prism would recombine the spectrum colors into white light.

Thomas Young (1773 – 1829), known as the founder of physiological optics, discovered that color perception happens within the retina of the eye. This occurs because three kinds of nerve fibers respond to red, green and blue light. These three colors are then combined in the brain into the millions of colors the human eye can distinguish.

Additive Color – RGB

The additive theory of color is based on this perception of Red, Green and Blue. These three colors are considered the primary colors for digital and light-based color technology, like those used in television screens and computer monitors. In RGB color theory, red, green and blue colors formed by light combine in different ways to produce all other visible colors. When all three are combined, they make white light. The absence of light creates black.

However, RGB theory does not apply to pigment-based color such as paint or printing inks.

Subtractive Color – RYB

In pigment-based processes, the primary colors are Red, Yellow and Blue. This is because pigments are solid substances—not pure light—and need to be mixed to create the colors we see.

Because of this, a comprehensive approach to color involves both additive RGB theory (which is how we see) and subtractive RYB (which is how we mix actual paint color) to develop color schemes.