Color, physical phenomenon of light or visual perception associated with the various wavelengths in the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum (see Electromagnetic Radiation; Spectrum). As a sensation experienced by humans and some animals, perception of color is a complex neurophysiological process. The methods used for color specification today belong to a technique known as colorimetry and consist of accurate scientific measurements based on the wavelengths of three primary colors.
White light is composed of electromagnetic vibrations, the wavelengths of which are evenly distributed from 35 to 75 millionths of a centimeter (about 14 to 30 millionths of an inch). If the intensity of these vibrations is strong, the light is white; if the intensity is less, the light is grey; and if the intensity is zero, the light is nonexistent or black. Light composed of vibrations of a single wavelength in the visible spectrum differs qualitatively from light of another wavelength. This qualitative difference is perceived subjectively as hue. Light with a wavelength of 0.000075 cm (0.000030 in) is perceived as red, and light of 0.000035 cm (0.000014 in) wavelength is perceived as violet. The quality of the intermediate wavelengths is perceived as blue, green, yellow, or orange, moving from the wavelength of violet to that of red.
The color of light of a single wavelength or of a small band of wavelengths is known as a pure spectral color or hue. Such pure colors are said to be fully saturated and are seldom encountered outside the laboratory. An exception is the light of the sodium-vapor lamps used on some modern highways, which is almost fully saturated spectral yellow. The wide variety of colors seen every day are colors of lower saturation, that is, mixtures of light of various wavelengths. Hue and saturation are the two qualitative differences of physical colors. The quantitative difference is brilliance, the intensity or energy of the light.
The human eye does not function like a machine for spectral analysis, and the same color sensation can be produced by different physical stimuli. Thus a mixture of red and green light of the proper intensities appears exactly the same as spectral yellow, although it does not contain light of the wavelengths corresponding to yellow. Any color sensation can be duplicated by mixing varying quantities of red, blue, and green. These colors, therefore, are known as the additive primary colors. If light of these primary colors is added together in equal intensities, the sensation of white light is produced. A number of pairs of pure spectral colors called complementary colors also exist; if mixed additively, these will produce the same sensation as white light. Among these pairs are certain yellows and blues, greens and blues, reds and greens, and greens and violets.
Most colors seen in ordinary experience are caused by the partial absorption of white light. The pigments that give color to most objects absorb certain wavelengths of white light and reflect or transmit others, producing the color sensation of the unabsorbed light.
The colors that absorb light of the additive primary colors are called subtractive primary colors. They are magenta (purplish-pink), which absorbs green; yellow, which absorbs blue; and cyan (light greenish-blue), which absorbs red. Thus, if a green light is thrown on a magenta pigment, the eye will perceive black. These subtractive primary colors are also called the pigment primaries. They can be mixed together in varying amounts to match almost any hue. If all three are mixed in about equal amounts, they will produce black. An example of the mixing of subtractive primaries is in color photography and in the printing of colored pictures in magazines, where magenta, yellow, black, and cyan inks are used successively to create natural color. Edwin Herbert Land, an American physicist and inventor of the Polaroid Land camera, demonstrated that color vision depends on a balance between the longer and shorter wavelengths of light. He photographed the same scene on two pieces of black-and-white film, one under red illumination, for long wavelengths, and one under green illumination, for short wavelengths. When both transparencies were projected on the same screen, with a red light in one projector and a green light in the other, a full-color reproduction appeared. The same phenomenon occurred when white light was used in one of the projectors. Reversing the colored lights in the projectors made the scene appear in complementary colors.
The mechanism of the absorption of light by substances to produce color is obscure. It is apparently a function of the molecular structure of the substance. In the case of organic compounds, only unsaturated compounds show color, and their hue can be changed by altering the compounds chemically. Inorganic compounds are generally colorless in solution or liquid form, except for compounds of the so-called transition elements.
Color is also produced in other ways than by absorption. The colors of mother-of-pearl and of soap bubbles are caused by interference. Some crystals show different colors when light is passed through them at different angles, a phenomenon known as pleochroism. A number of substances show different colors by transmitted and reflected light. For example, a very thin sheet of gold appears green by transmitted light. The "fire" of certain gems, notably the diamond, is due to the dispersion of white light into its component spectral hues, as in a prism. Some substances, when illuminated by light of one hue, absorb this light and reradiate light of a different hue, always of longer wavelength. This phenomenon is called fluorescence, or, if delayed, phosphorescence (see Luminescence). The blue of the sky is caused by the scattering of the short wavelength blue components of white sunlight by the molecules and atoms that make up the atmosphere. A similar scattering can be observed in a darkened movie theater. Seen from the side, the light beam from the projector appears blue, because of the smoke and dust in the air; yet the light on the screen is white. 07 September 2010Comment