Color: Shedding some light on the subject

This is an image that illustrates this post subject: color fundamentals. It shows different tints of colors.

It’s one of those subjects that everyone fights over.
Ether because the designer thinks it’s perfect, and the client finds it dull, or maybe because two friends don’t agreed on a wallpaper’s color.
Regardless of the dispute, this is one of those topics where there isn’t a right or wrong way.
There is a lot of information, but let’s go over some fundamentals to grasp the better part of it.

What is color and how we see it

The main reason why people argue over color (other than being stubborn designers), it’s because they don’t see it the same way.
In reality, it doesn’t exist in a physical sense. What we see is a response from our brain, processing our vision’s response to different wavelengths.
In order for this to happen, our eyes have three types of color receptors: red, green, and blue. Consequently, all the colors we perceived are a combination of these three.

Since different color-sensing cells respond differently, from person to person, identifying colors becomes highly subjective.

Additionally, we are only capable of perceiving color in the presence or absence of light, regardless of being natural or artificial. Which means that when we have a lot of light we see vivid, bright colors, while when there isn’t light, we can’t see colors, and everything looks pitch black.

The visible spectrum of color

Even though people can distinguish approximately 10 million colors, they are all situated in the visible spectrum.
On one side of the spectrum, there are the reds – the longest wavelengths – and on the other, the violets with the shortest.
Below the red, and above violet, are the infrared and the ultraviolet waves, respectively, invisible to the human eye.

Regarding black and white, our brain processes them differently. White is produced by containing all the colors, and black is the opposite, is the absence of colors.

Vision problems

As we’ve seen, in order to perceive color, our brain processes the input from the cones located on our eyes.
But besides individual perception, there are also other factors that contribute to different interpretations. Genetic conditions and aging are the main ones.

Color blindness takes up many varieties, and it tends to affect men more than women.
Monochromatic blindness (the worst in my opinion), affects people that lack all receptors and therefore, can’t see any colors.
As for Dichromatic blindness, it affects people that don’t have red-green or blue-yellow receptors and can’t see colors in those ranges.
People with anomalous trichromatism can perceive color, however, they need the wavelength to be much more intense to see it normally.

Lastly, the natural aging of the human eye also compromises vision and acuity.


Now that we know how what it is and how we see it, it’s important to understand classifications and properties.
Colors are primary or secondary. Primary colors are the most important since their combination forms the secondary colors.

Primary colors

Regarding the primary colors (red, green, and blue), there are two types: additive and subtractive.
As you might have guessed, the primary additive colors are the ones that result from pure light.
On the other hand, the subtractive primary colors, are a result of reflected light. In this category, we have colors derived from transparent pigments, or from opaque pigments.

Additive colors

Visible colors are the purest ones, and they represent a higher level of brightness or intensity.
When designers use rays light on a computer, they are using additive colors or RGB.
When all of the three primary colors overlap, they produce white light. That’s why they’re called additive.

Subtractive colors

When a color is seen through reflected light, it’s called subtractive.
If applied to a surface like paper or canvas, the sensation of color happens when the surface absorbs wavelengths, except for the ones recognized by the eyes.

There are two sets of subtractive primary colors: the ones used by artists – red, yellow, and blue (RYB) – and the ones used by printers – cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY) transparent inks, and dyes. Adding black, we have a four-color process known as CMYK, which produces all visible colors, when combined differently.

  1. The RYB Primaries
    In this triad, the combination of red with yellow produces orange, red and blue creates violet (or purple), and blue and yellow creates green.
    When all colors are combined, no color is reflected and so, black is produced.
  2. The CMY Primaries
    In this subtractive model, magenta and yellow form red, yellow and cyan combined leads to green, and cyan and magenta form violet (or purple).
    Similarly to RYB, when all the three colors are combined, it produces black, since there’s no color reflection.

The properties of Color

Regardless of using an additive or subtractive primaries, each color has physical properties.
In order to scientifically describe it, there is a subjective, and an objective system of measurement.

The first one describes colors in terms of hue, saturation, and brightness (HBS). The objective system tests the wavelength, purity, and luminance.

  1. Hue
    It’s the common name of the color and indicates where it’s positioned in the visible spectrum or the color wheel.
    It can be more precise when two hues next to each other are compared (one blue can be more greenish than the other one).
  2. Saturation
    Refers to the purity, strength or intensity of a color. It’s the absence of black, white or gray, and it measures the richness of the color.
    Vivid color is high or full saturation, while a dull color is desaturated.
  3. Brightness
    Also called value, brightness is the degree of lightness or darkness, present in a color. It also represents its reflective attribute.
    If a color is mixed with white, it forms a tint, if it is mixed with black, it forms a shade.

Related posts:
Color theory: how to effectively master color
Are we seeing colors?
Why has Pantone become the most used color system worldwide?

About Melted

Melted was born in 2017. 
Back then, I was facing some hard time regarding my profession (or lack of), but I wanted to push forward and inspire others to do the same.
So I put my fears aside, and several huge cups of coffee later, this project was online.

Read the full story

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