Shedding Light on Color

Shedding Light on Color

What is color really?


We tend to think of color as being a property of, a part of, or existing within or on something.  We think of an object or surface having, or containing color.  As color is so emotionally, psychologically and even physically powerful, we concretize  it, i.e., we  see it as a Thing, unto itself.

But actually, as IACC color designer Frank Mahnke says, “Color exists only in our brain.”  He further explains, “Color is actually the result of different wavelengths of light stimulating certain parts of the brain. The experience of color depends on the intensity of light, the way it is reflected from a surface, and the colors surrounding objects.”


The Artist’s handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer states, “Each paint pigment owes its color to the kind of light rays it absorbs and reflects.  White light (daylight) is composed of a number of waves or impulses of various dimensions or wavelengths, any single one of which, if isolated, would have the property of producing a specific color sensation on the eye.  When a ray of white light falls upon a pigment, the pigment absorbs certain waves and reflects others; this determines its color effect.”


When we consider that white  light is composed of the color spectrum, we can then understand that the color that we see is composed of the light waves that are NOT absorbed by the surface we are looking at.  This may seem counter-intuitive, because aren’t we looking at a color that IS part of the surface we see, and not the color that isn’t?

Well, actually, no.

We are perceiving a color that is, to a great extent,  the light wavelengths NOT being absorbed by the surface, which ARE being scattered, or reflected “back to us”, and thus we perceive the surface as “being” that color that we see.  I say “to a great extent”, because our perception of color  is also affected  by ambient lighting, as well as the color of objects nearby.

When we think of the surface (actually, it is the material, or pigments on or in the surface, but for the sake of simplicity…) as absorbing the light waves we DON’T see, and reflecting back to us those we DO, then the whole phenomenon becomes a bit easier to understand.  In a sense, the colors we see are not really “there”, objectively speaking.  Indeed, one might say that our perception is a phenomenon of light.  Comprehending this, we can understand why the Impressionists declared that they were “painting light”.

However much we study the science, the facts as we understand them, and various color theories from Newton to Goethe, there is an aspect of color that remains a mystery, and perhaps rightly so.

The fact that color is not an inherent part of objects, but is, among other things, an effect of light, which is mutable, changes our perception of both ourselves and the world around and within us.  Our comprehension is tweaked, and may become  just that much broader.  Learning about, experiencing, and understanding aspects of color may color our view on hue, the world, our lives.  Color, and the art, science and magic of it really can be transformative; white light splintering into all the colors of the Rainbow…

What scientifically magical or mysterious aspects of color have YOU discovered lately?

If you are so moved, please share them with us here.  We love to hear from You.

Remember, we are all coloring our way through this thing called Life, together




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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks Debra, for a very good composite explanation of how Color is Light, as represented in our visual interpretations of the colors of surface materials, and actually of everything we see. Your post is just one example of the many that are behind your well-deserved recent award.

    • Thank you Barbara…I appreciate your comment! It is challenging to put these concepts into comprehensible language, choosing the right amount of science explanation, without getting too bogged down. Writing these posts and articles keeps me engaged with, and further exploring, studying, and reviewing the subject, which is a forever pursuit. As a dance teacher of mine once said, “Investigating that which I am doing.” I am sure you find this too, and you are involved in so many areas of art, color and design! Thank you for your support, and I do look forward to chatting over tea at the Samovar some time!


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