Color Theory: What is Color?


Sorry for leaving you hanging last week, today though, I’m going to scratch the surface. To understand color theory, it helps to start by understanding what color is. It’s kind of weird and abstract to think about, but color isn’t really a substance, but a wavelength of visible light.


Anatomy of Color

Color is really just a wavelength of light, or a mixture of wavelengths. You’ve probably heard the appreciation R.O.Y.G.B.I.V. to describe the visible colors, it was probably something you forgot from highschool chemistry, and stands for Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. All of these are different wavelengths of light which your brain interprets as color, the brain is a tricky thing though and can also perceive colors which aren’t on the spectrum of colors… SAY WHAT?! It’s like you have super powers or something. There are non-spectral colors, which are constructed by your brain when it blends wavelengths. Look at the color spectrum above and tell me where magenta is? Magenta is a color you can see, but any red-violet shades of color (like magenta or rose) are constructs your brain puts together when Red and Violet light mix together. Similarly, White and all 50 shades of grey are amalgams of all the colors on the spectrum blended together. Mind blown.


For you to see color, light needs to be reflected off the surface of what you’re looking at. As the sun shines on the surface of an object with a (fairly) full spectrum, the material absorbs all the light except the shade of you see reflected off of it. So a green surface can absorbs everything not green and reflects the green light into your ocular cavities. If you did have super powers, you could use the exact wavelength of the light you see to know the chemical composition of the object, since different materials reflect different colors. Using a spectrometer, scientists analyze light reflecting off of planets or coming from stars to know their composition. Woah.

Additive Color Mixing

Additive Color Mixing

Subtractive Color Mixing

Subtractive Color Mixing

Additive and Subtractive Color Mixing

Mixing light is Additive. As you mix light together, you’re adding more frequencies of light, making the color brighter and lighter. The more light you have, the brighter it becomes, and as you add more frequencies, the more white the light appears. This is the method your computer monitor, TV, etc, uses to display different colors.

Mixing paint is Subtractive. As you mix paint together, the pigments become darker and it absorbs more light, subtracting from the amount of light that reflects off the surface. Because of this absorption, the more colors you mix together, the duller colors tend to become. You can’t mix paints to make a color brighter, since the more pigments you mix, the more light is absorbed. Because we already know that the color of an object is dependent on the color composition of the paint, it makes sense that the more colors you mix, the more colors of light will be reflected simultaneously. Furthermore, the individual chemicals used to give a paint it’s pigment are all going to behave differently at different concentrations. Sometimes a color may appear black, but as you mix in more white, you’ll see it is slightly blue, or a color may appear red at full concentration, but more magenta at lower. We’ll get into this more when we talk about the composition of paint.

What we all now know is that the color of light, reflected off your model, has to do with the composition of the materials of the paint you’ve applied. As you mix together more colors, the shade of color becomes duller and darker. Knowing the physics of why the color reacts is important to gaining a deeper understanding into the behavior of your paints.


Next article I’m going to go deeper into what paint is, the color wheel, and mixing paints. Get ready to learn about RYB vs CMY color models, as well as crazy things like the Zorn pallet.