Colors can appear different depending on their surrounding colors and shapes. In this optical illusion
, the two small squares have exactly the same color, but the right one looks slightly darker.
Because perception of color stems from the varying spectral sensitivity
of different types of cone cells
in the retina
to different parts of the spectrum, colors may be defined and quantified by the degree to which they stimulate these cells. These physical or physiological
quantifications of color, however, do not fully explain the psychophysical
perception of color appearance.
Physics of color
Continuous optical spectrum rendered into the sRGB
The colors of the visible light spectrum
Color, wavelength, frequency and energy of light
Most light sources emit light at many different wavelengths; a source's spectrum
is a distribution giving its intensity at each wavelength. Although the spectrum of light arriving at the eye from a given direction determines the color sensation
in that direction, there are many more possible spectral combinations than color sensations. In fact, one may formally define a color as a class of spectra that give rise to the same color sensation, although such classes would vary widely among different species, and to a lesser extent among individuals within the same species. In each such class the members are called metamers
of the color in question. This effect can be visualized by comparing the light sources' spectral power distributions
and the resulting colors.
The color table should not be interpreted as a definitive list—the pure spectral colors form a continuous spectrum, and how it is divided into distinct colors linguistically
is a matter of culture and historical contingency (although people everywhere have been shown to perceive
colors in the same way
). A common list identifies six main bands: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Newton's conception included a seventh color, indigo
, between blue and violet. It is possible that what Newton referred to as blue is nearer to what today is known as cyan
, and that indigo was simply the dark blue of the indigo dye
that was being imported at the time.
of a spectral color, relative to the context in which it is viewed, may alter its perception considerably; for example, a low-intensity orange-yellow is brown
, and a low-intensity yellow-green is olive green
The color of an object depends on the physics of the object in its environment, the physics of light in its environment, and the characteristics of the perceiving eye and brain
. Physically, objects can be said to have the color of the light leaving their surfaces if it travels through the vacuum of space at speed c
and does not pass through a physical medium such as a prism
. The perceived color normally depends on the spectrum of the incident illumination, the wave velocity
, the reflectance properties of the surface, and potentially on the angles of illumination and viewing. Some objects not only reflect light, but also transmit light or emit light themselves, which also contributes to the color. A viewer's perception of the object's color depends not only on the spectrum of the light leaving its surface, but also on a host of contextual cues, so that color differences between objects can be discerned mostly independent of the lighting spectrum, viewing angle, etc. This effect is known as color constancy
The upper disk and the lower disk have exactly the same objective color, and are in identical gray surroundings; based on context differences, humans perceive the squares as having different reflectances, and may interpret the colors as different color categories; see checker shadow illusion
Some generalizations of the physics can be drawn, neglecting perceptual effects for now:
- Light arriving at an opaque surface is either reflected "specularly" (that is, in the manner of a mirror), scattered (that is, reflected with diffuse scattering), or absorbed—or some combination of these.
- Opaque objects that do not reflect specularly (which tend to have rough surfaces) have their color determined by which wavelengths of light they scatter strongly (with the light that is not scattered being absorbed). If objects scatter all wavelengths with roughly equal strength, they appear white. If they absorb all wavelengths, they appear black.
- Opaque objects that specularly reflect light of different wavelengths with different efficiencies look like mirrors tinted with colors determined by those differences. An object that reflects some fraction of impinging light and absorbs the rest may look black but also be faintly reflective; examples are black objects coated with layers of enamel or lacquer.
- Objects that transmit light are either translucent (scattering the transmitted light) or transparent (not scattering the transmitted light). If they also absorb (or reflect) light of various wavelengths differentially, they appear tinted with a color determined by the nature of that absorption (or that reflectance).
- Objects may emit light that they generate from having excited electrons, rather than merely reflecting or transmitting light. The electrons may be excited due to elevated temperature (incandescence), as a result of chemical reactions (chemiluminescence), after absorbing light of other frequencies ("fluorescence" or "phosphorescence") or from electrical contacts as in light-emitting diodes, or other light sources.
To summarize, the color of an object is a complex result of its surface properties, its transmission properties, and its emission properties, all of which contribute to the mix of wavelengths in the light leaving the surface of the object. The perceived color is then further conditioned by the nature of the ambient illumination, and by the color properties of other objects nearby, and via other characteristics of the perceiving eye and brain.
When viewed in full size, this image contains about 16 million pixels, each corresponding to a different color on the full set of RGB colors. The human eye
can distinguish about 10 million different colors.
Development of theories of color vision
and other ancient scientists had already written on the nature of light and color vision
, it was not until Newton
that light was identified as the source of the color sensation. In 1810, Goethe
published his comprehensive Theory of Colors
in which he provided a rational description of colour experience, which 'tells us how it originates, not what it is'. (Schopenhauer)
In 1801 Thomas Young
proposed his trichromatic theory
, based on the observation that any color could be matched with a combination of three lights. This theory was later refined by James Clerk Maxwell
and Hermann von Helmholtz
. As Helmholtz puts it, "the principles of Newton's law of mixture were experimentally confirmed by Maxwell in 1856. Young's theory of color sensations, like so much else that this marvelous investigator achieved in advance of his time, remained unnoticed until Maxwell directed attention to it."
At the same time as Helmholtz, Ewald Hering
developed the opponent process
theory of color, noting that color blindness
and afterimages typically come in opponent pairs (red-green, blue-orange, yellow-violet, and black-white). Ultimately these two theories were synthesized in 1957 by Hurvich and Jameson, who showed that retinal processing corresponds to the trichromatic theory, while processing at the level of the lateral geniculate nucleus
corresponds to the opponent theory.
In 1931, an international group of experts known as the Commission internationale de l'éclairage
) developed a mathematical color model, which mapped out the space of observable colors and assigned a set of three numbers to each.
Normalized typical human cone cell
responses (S, M, and L types) to monochromatic spectral stimuli
The ability of the human eye
to distinguish colors is based upon the varying sensitivity of different cells in the retina
to light of different wavelengths
. Humans are trichromatic
—the retina contains three types of color receptor cells, or cones
. One type, relatively distinct from the other two, is most responsive to light that is perceived as blue or blue-violet, with wavelengths around 450 nm
; cones of this type are sometimes called short-wavelength cones
or S cones
(or misleadingly, blue cones
). The other two types are closely related genetically and chemically: middle-wavelength cones
, M cones
, or green cones
are most sensitive to light perceived as green, with wavelengths around 540 nm, while the long-wavelength cones
, L cones
, or red cones
, are most sensitive to light that is perceived as greenish yellow, with wavelengths around 570 nm.
Light, no matter how complex its composition of wavelengths, is reduced to three color components by the eye. Each cone type adheres to the principle of univariance
, which is that each cone's output is determined by the amount of light that falls on it over all wavelengths. For each location in the visual field, the three types of cones yield three signals based on the extent to which each is stimulated. These amounts of stimulation are sometimes called tristimulus values
The response curve as a function of wavelength varies for each type of cone. Because the curves overlap, some tristimulus values do not occur for any incoming light combination. For example, it is not possible to stimulate only
the mid-wavelength (so-called "green") cones; the other cones will inevitably be stimulated to some degree at the same time. The set of all possible tristimulus values determines the human color space
. It has been estimated that humans can distinguish roughly 10 million different colors.
The other type of light-sensitive cell in the eye, the rod
, has a different response curve. In normal situations, when light is bright enough to strongly stimulate the cones, rods play virtually no role in vision at all.
On the other hand, in dim light, the cones are understimulated leaving only the signal from the rods, resulting in a colorless
response. (Furthermore, the rods are barely sensitive to light in the "red" range.) In certain conditions of intermediate illumination, the rod response and a weak cone response can together result in color discriminations not accounted for by cone responses alone. These effects, combined, are summarized also in the Kruithof curve
, that describes the change of color perception and pleasingness of light as function of temperature and intensity.
While the mechanisms of color vision
at the level of the retina
are well-described in terms of tristimulus values, color processing after that point is organized differently. A dominant theory of color vision proposes that color information is transmitted out of the eye by three opponent processes
, or opponent channels, each constructed from the raw output of the cones: a red–green channel, a blue–yellow channel, and a black–white "luminance" channel. This theory has been supported by neurobiology, and accounts for the structure of our subjective color experience. Specifically, it explains why humans cannot perceive a "reddish green" or "yellowish blue", and it predicts the color wheel
: it is the collection of colors for which at least one of the two color channels measures a value at one of its extremes.
The exact nature of color perception beyond the processing already described, and indeed the status of color as a feature of the perceived world or rather as a feature of our perception
of the world—a type of qualia
—is a matter of complex and continuing philosophical dispute.
Nonstandard color perception
If one or more types of a person's color-sensing cones are missing or less responsive than normal to incoming light, that person can distinguish fewer colors and is said to be color deficient
or color blind
(though this latter term can be misleading; almost all color deficient individuals can distinguish at least some colors). Some kinds of color deficiency are caused by anomalies in the number or nature of cones in the retina. Others (like central
or cortical achromatopsia
) are caused by neural anomalies in those parts of the brain where visual processing takes place.
While most humans are trichromatic
(having three types of color receptors), many animals, known as tetrachromats
, have four types. These include some species of spiders
, most marsupials
, and many species of fish
. Other species are sensitive to only two axes of color or do not perceive color at all; these are called dichromats
respectively. A distinction is made between retinal tetrachromacy
(having four pigments in cone cells in the retina, compared to three in trichromats) and functional tetrachromacy
(having the ability to make enhanced color discriminations based on that retinal difference). As many as half of all women are retinal tetrachromats.: p.256
The phenomenon arises when an individual receives two slightly different copies of the gene for either the medium- or long-wavelength cones, which are carried on the X chromosome
. To have two different genes, a person must have two X chromosomes, which is why the phenomenon only occurs in women.
There is one scholarly report that confirms the existence of a functional tetrachromat.
In certain forms of synesthesia
, perceiving letters and numbers (grapheme–color synesthesia
) or hearing musical sounds (music–color synesthesia) will lead to the unusual additional experiences of seeing colors. Behavioral and functional neuroimaging
experiments have demonstrated that these color experiences lead to changes in behavioral tasks and lead to increased activation of brain regions involved in color perception, thus demonstrating their reality, and similarity to real color percepts, albeit evoked through a non-standard route.
After exposure to strong light in their sensitivity range, photoreceptors
of a given type become desensitized. For a few seconds after the light ceases, they will continue to signal less strongly than they otherwise would. Colors observed during that period will appear to lack the color component detected by the desensitized photoreceptors. This effect is responsible for the phenomenon of afterimages
, in which the eye may continue to see a bright figure after looking away from it, but in a complementary color
Afterimage effects have also been utilized by artists, including Vincent van Gogh
When an artist uses a limited color palette
, the human eye
tends to compensate by seeing any gray or neutral color as the color which is missing from the color wheel. For example, 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 gray will appear bluish.
The trichromatic theory is strictly true when the visual system is in a fixed state of adaptation. In reality, the visual system is constantly adapting to changes in the environment and compares the various colors in a scene to reduce 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 colors in the scene appear relatively constant to us. This was studied by Edwin H. Land
in the 1970s and led to his retinex theory of color constancy
Both phenomena are readily explained and mathematically modeled with modern theories of chromatic adaptation and color appearance (e.g. CIECAM02
There is no need to dismiss the trichromatic theory of vision, but rather it can be enhanced with an understanding of how the visual system adapts to changes in the viewing environment.
This picture contains one million pixels, each one a different color
Colors vary in several different ways, including hue
(shades of red
, and violet
, and gloss
. Some color words are derived from the name of an object of that color, such as "orange
" or "salmon
", while others are abstract, like "red".
In the 1969 study Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution
, Brent Berlin
and Paul Kay
describe a pattern in naming "basic" colors (like "red" but not "red-orange" or "dark red" or "blood red", which are "shades" of red). All languages that have two "basic" color names distinguish dark/cool colors from bright/warm colors. The next colors to be distinguished are usually red and then yellow or green. All languages with six "basic" colors include black, white, red, green, blue, and yellow. The pattern holds up to a set of twelve: black, gray, white, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, and azure
(distinct from blue in Russian
, but not English).
Colors, their meanings and associations can play major role in works of art, including literature.
Individual colors have a variety of cultural associations such as national colors
(in general described in individual color articles and color symbolism
). The field of color psychology
attempts to identify the effects of color on human emotion and activity. Chromotherapy
is a form of alternative medicine
attributed to various Eastern traditions. Colors have different associations in different countries and cultures.
Different colors have been demonstrated to have effects on cognition. For example, researchers at the University of Linz in Austria demonstrated that the color red significantly decreases cognitive functioning in men.
Spectral colors and color reproduction
The CIE 1931 color space chromaticity
diagram. The outer curved boundary is the spectral (or monochromatic) locus, with wavelengths shown in nanometers. The colors depicted depend on the color space
of the device on which you are viewing the image, and therefore may not be a strictly accurate representation of the color at a particular position, and especially not for monochromatic colors.
Most light sources are mixtures of various wavelengths of light. Many such sources can still effectively produce a spectral color, as the eye cannot distinguish them from single-wavelength sources. For example, most computer displays reproduce the spectral color orange as a combination of red and green light; it appears orange because the red and green are mixed in the right proportions to allow the eye's cones to respond the way they do to the spectral color orange.
A useful concept in understanding the perceived color of a non-monochromatic light source is the dominant wavelength
, which identifies the single wavelength of light that produces a sensation most similar to the light source. Dominant wavelength is roughly akin to hue
There are many color perceptions that by definition cannot be pure spectral colors due to desaturation
or because they are purples
(mixtures of red and violet light, from opposite ends of the spectrum). Some examples of necessarily non-spectral colors are the achromatic colors (black, gray, and white) and colors such as pink
, and magenta
Two different light spectra that have the same effect on the three color receptors in the human eye
will be perceived as the same color. They are metamers
of that color. This is exemplified by the white light emitted by fluorescent lamps, which typically has a spectrum 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 colors from objects can look different. (This is often exploited; for example, to make fruit
look more intensely red.)
Similarly, most human color perceptions can be generated by a mixture of three colors called primaries
. This is used to reproduce color scenes in photography, printing, television, and other media. There are a number of methods or color spaces
for specifying a color in terms of three particular primary colors
. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages depending on the particular application.
No mixture of colors, however, can produce a response truly identical to that of a spectral color, although one can get close, especially for the longer wavelengths, where the CIE 1931 color space
chromaticity diagram 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 color 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 color printing
systems generally are not pure themselves, the colors reproduced are never perfectly saturated spectral colors, and so spectral colors cannot be matched exactly. However, natural scenes rarely contain fully saturated colors, thus such scenes can usually be approximated well by these systems. The range of colors that can be reproduced with a given color reproduction system is called the gamut
. The CIE
chromaticity diagram can be used to describe the gamut.
Another problem with color reproduction systems is connected with the acquisition devices, like cameras or scanners. The characteristics of the color sensors in the devices are often very far from the characteristics of the receptors in the human eye. In effect, acquisition of colors can be relatively poor if they have special, often very "jagged", spectra caused for example by unusual lighting of the photographed scene. A color reproduction system "tuned" to a human with normal color vision may give very inaccurate results for other observers.
The different color response of different devices can be problematic if not properly managed. For color information stored and transferred in digital form, color management
techniques, such as those based on ICC profiles
, can help to avoid distortions of the reproduced colors. Color management does not circumvent the gamut limitations of particular output devices, but can assist in finding good mapping of input colors into the gamut that can be reproduced.
Additive color mixing: combining red and green yields yellow; combining all three primary colors together yields white.
is light created by mixing together light
of two or more different colors. Red
, and blue
are the additive primary colors
normally used in additive color systems such as projectors and computer terminals.
Subtractive color mixing: combining yellow and magenta yields red; combining all three primary colors together yields black
Twelve main pigment colors
uses dyes, inks, pigments, or filters to absorb some wavelengths of light and not others. The color that a surface displays comes from the parts of the visible spectrum that are not absorbed and therefore remain visible. Without pigments or dye, fabric fibers, paint base and paper are usually made of particles that scatter white light (all colors) well in all directions. When a pigment or ink is added, wavelengths are absorbed or "subtracted" from white light, so light of another color reaches the eye.
If the light is not a pure white source (the case of nearly all forms of artificial lighting), the resulting spectrum will appear a slightly different color. Red
paint, viewed under blue
light, may appear black
. Red paint is red because it scatters only the red components of the spectrum. If red paint is illuminated by blue light, it will be absorbed by the red paint, creating the appearance of a black object.
Structural colors are colors caused by interference effects rather than by pigments. Color effects are produced when a material is scored with fine parallel lines, formed of one or more parallel thin layers, or otherwise composed of microstructures on the scale of the color's wavelength
. If the microstructures are spaced randomly, light of shorter wavelengths will be scattered preferentially to produce Tyndall effect
colors: the blue of the sky (Rayleigh scattering, caused by structures much smaller than the wavelength of light, in this case air molecules), the luster of opals
, and the blue of human irises. If the microstructures are aligned in arrays, for example the array of pits in a CD, they behave as a diffraction grating
: the grating reflects different wavelengths in different directions due to interference
phenomena, separating mixed "white" light into light of different wavelengths. If the structure is one or more thin layers then it will reflect some wavelengths and transmit others, depending on the layers' thickness.
Structural color is studied in the field of thin-film optics
. The most ordered or the most changeable structural colors are iridescent
. Structural color is responsible for the blues and greens of the feathers of many birds (the blue jay, for example), as well as certain butterfly wings and beetle shells. Variations in the pattern's spacing often give rise to an iridescent effect, as seen in peacock
feathers, soap bubbles
, films of oil, and mother of pearl
, because the reflected color depends upon the viewing angle. Numerous scientists have carried out research in butterfly wings and beetle shells, including Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Since 1942, electron micrography
has been used, advancing the development of products that exploit structural color, such as "photonic
- Color wheel: an illustrative organization of color hues in a circle that shows relationships.
- Colorfulness, chroma, purity, or saturation: how "intense" or "concentrated" a color is. Technical definitions distinguish between colorfulness, chroma, and saturation as distinct perceptual attributes and include purity as a physical quantity. These terms, and others related to light and color are internationally agreed upon and published in the CIE Lighting Vocabulary. More readily available texts on colorimetry also define and explain these terms.
- Dichromatism: a phenomenon where the hue is dependent on concentration and thickness of the absorbing substance.
- Hue: the color's direction from white, for example in a color wheel or chromaticity diagram.
- Shade: a color made darker by adding black.
- Tint: a color made lighter by adding white.
- Value, brightness, lightness, or luminosity: how light or dark a color is.
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