A Colorful History

Article by Ryne Hisada, Editor-in-Chief

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Amongst the five senses, vision is commonly regarded as the most dominant and sensitive. The human eye perceives light within a set of wavelengths—this is known as the visible color spectrum. The brain then translates these wavelengths into the familiar colors that light up the world. If the eyes are a coloring book, the brain is the crayons and markers that bring it to life. 

Humans tend to make connections and associations using color. Perhaps the most notorious linguistic example of this is the fruit, orange. In fact, the name of the fruit came before the color was named. To say that oranges are orange, though, would be scientifically inaccurate—if anything, oranges lack orange. 

Light naturally varies in wavelength. Imagine light as a squiggly line. Lights with a longer wavelength would squiggle less frequently, and lights with shorter wavelengths would squiggle more frequently. If the term “frequency” sounds at all familiar, that’s because it should—the longer the wavelength, the lower the frequency. 

Humans see only a set degree of wavelengths, known as colors. If all wavelengths were visible, humans would be constantly surrounded by the glow of all sorts of lights: x-rays, infrared rays, radar, TV rays, and more. Even within the color spectrum, there are a host of different wavelengths that each represent a different color. The shortest wavelength is violet, at the longest, red, and about in the middle, green.

Photo by B Jefferson Bolender

When interacting with matter, light can do four different things: reflect, transmit, absorb, and scatter. For the purposes of seeing color, reflection and absorption play the greatest role. A light that carries all colors on the visible spectrum is called “white light.” When white light rays hit an object, each individual wavelength either gets absorbed or reflected. If the wavelengths that are reflected make contact with an eye, the colors that each wavelength produces are organized in the brain to ultimately allow for a perception of color. In other words, the colors that don’t get absorbed by an object, are the colors that get associated with it. Why are some wavelengths absorbed and some aren’t? That’s a question for our wonderful science teachers.

Despite being represented in white light, not at all colors are created equally. Whereas red is one of the most common colors in nature, blue is the rarest. Magenta, in fact, does not appear in nature—it doesn’t exist in the visible light spectrum. Supposedly, magenta is a construct of the human brain and lacks a wavelength. These disparities in the rarity of colors have been apparent throughout human history. Red pigments, derived from iron and mercury, were first used in cave paintings, ink, and pottery. In contrast, despite how popular blue is today, it was only first manipulated by the ancient Egyptians as lapis lazuli gemstone.

Artworks of the past demonstrate how human mastery of color has adapted to culture over time. At first, color was associated with specific materials. Paintings of the medieval times relied largely on relaxed colors, allowing vibrant, and often expensive, colors to be eye-catching.

After the Industrial Revolution, as a result of mass production and the advancement of technology, a greater variety of colors were accessible to artists. The result was the shift to the dominance of vibrant colors from dull ones. 

It may be reasonable to conclude that humans of today have a full grasp on the elements of color. With digital art technologies and mass production of physical color utensils, lacking access to color is more a lack of development and convenience, than it is of advancement. Color thrives when intertwined with culture, arguably more so than times of the past, as technology continues to develop.