Properties of Color
The three main properties of color are Hue, Intensity, and Value.
Hue refers to the color of something, meaning that when we speak of green (for instance) and it’s greeness we are referring to the Hue.
Intensity refers to the saturation or “vibrancy” of a color. In the graph below you can see how Intensity can differ in a color. Intensity of a color can be changed in a few different ways.
1: Adding white to a color will lighten it and also diminish it’s intensity. Adding white to a color is commonly referred to as tinting the color.
2: Adding black to a color will also diminish it’s intensity. This is commonly reffered to as a Shade.
3: Adding a mixture of grey to a color will dimish its intensity. Grey is often employed instead of using white and black (independently) as it can allow the value of the color to stay close to the original and avoid making a color too dark, or too light.
4: Adding a compimentary color will diminish the intensity. If you don’t know about complimentary color then please check out Color Theory Basics.
Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a color. This was also covered in Color Theory Basics, as well as Creating Value Scales in Color.
Now that we know the three basic properties of color we can move on to some principles of color. Think of the properties of color as the skeleton of what makes a color what it is. But there’s a lot more to color than just it’s measurable attributes! Colors talk to each other and operate as a community. It is nearly impossible to experience a single color all by its self. So that’s the first hurdle you need to get over in beginning to understand color theory. Every color is effected by the colors around it.
But that’s not all! As we discussed in the introductory lesson (Intro to Color Theory) color is also based on subjective considerations as well. For instance, some color is used symbolically such as a bride wearing white at a wedding. This was originally done to show purity. On the other hand Black is generally symbolically worn at funerals. Green is worn for St Patricks day. Red and Green are the colors of Christmas. Orange the color for Halloween. But again, it is important to reiterate that these colors are just common for the culture I come from. Perhaps someone is reading this in Tehran or New Delhi. They will notice that they too have their own ceremonial colors that differ from mine (please comment any ceremonial colors distinct to your culture below!). So remember that colors can also be used symbolically.
Another consideration is that there are real measurable frequencies and wavelengths for color. These are measured in Terahertz and Nanometres. In this graph you can see the measurable frequencies and wavelengths in the primary and secondary colors.
A very creative artist who had a strong proclivity towards scientific inquiry could surely make some interesting paintings based solely of the physical attributes of color and this measuring system. However, the vast majority of artists will be looking at different properties and principles of color in order to craft their works and the realism (or lack thereof) and mood they wish to transmit to the viewer.
There’s one element of color I’ve been hiding from you thus far. And that is that color exists in two different ways. Color exists as pure sunlight which can be broken up by using a prism and these colors have their own properties, and through artificial means such as pigments, dyes, chemical concoctions, nature, and paint. Now the tricky part we need to reconcile is that without light we obviously can’t see colors. So in the full scheme of things we need sunlight (which holds its own spectrum of color) to shine down from the sky, hit an object on earth, bounce off the object, and into our eyes, where it’s sensed by light sensitive cells, at which point it is transmitted and processed by our brain, and then in our brain it relays the relevant information and associates it with words, feelings, or emotions. “Yes, the ocean is blue. Beautiful”
But it doesn’t stop there. Our brains also have a propensity to try and make sense of the world, and as painters we must walk the line of dealing with illusion. After all, a canvas is a flat two dimensional object and we want to create an illusion of depth, form, and emotion, on a flat surface. So we must be aware of the properties of color if we want to have a full set of tools to create the illusions we want to on the canvas.
In the following frames we will be looking at some of the properties of color in sunlight. And some of the properties of color as they pertain to how the brain tries to make sense of them.
In 1676 Sir Isaac Newton used a prism to separate and analyze a spectrum of colors. He could see that by analyzing sunlight one could see all of the hues besides purple. We have the same group of colors in the first image above. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Dark Blue, Violet. Now, if we take these colors, and mix them, we will get white. Remember we’re talking about sunlight here! Obviously these colors react differently when they are in a physical form such as paint.
So why do we get white when we mix colors of light, and get brown when we mix paints? Well, the answer isn’t as simple as it may seem. Light works in a strange way so take a second to absorb what I’m about to tell you. Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Dark Blue, and Violet all make up the full spectrum of colors in sunlight. Now, lets say we take one of these colors out, for instance Yellow. So we are left with Red, Orange, Green, Blue, Dark Blue, Violet. What color do we end up with? The answer is that we get the compliment of the color which we removed from the spectrum, so in this case of removing yellow from the spectrum we get violet. Since you all know your color wheels and complimentary colors by now it is quite easy to answer this question time and time again. If we isolate blue we get orange. Isolate Red and we get Green. Think of it like this, by taking out red we are still dealing with Yellow and Blue. Mix yellow and Blue, and surprise! It’s green. The compliment of red.
Now that you’re probably ready to start pulling your hair out let me try to explain why this is. Our eyes can’t see the individual hues when combined in the full spectrum . So what you probably were thinking is that things that are red are red because they are absorbing the red part of the spectrum of colors right? Wrong! 😀 A red apple is red because it can absorb every color but red! So when we see a red apple it is absorbing Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Dark Blue, and Violet. It’s reflecting the red color of the spectrum because all of the other colors are absorbed! So what happens when we shine a green light on a red apple? The apple will appear black since there is no red present to be reflected and all the colors are absorbed.
Take a look at the image below. Here I have illuminated this strange furry green ball with a red lamp. The result is obvious. The ball absorbs most all of the red light and doesn’t have any green light to reflect the “greeness” of the ball. This causes the ball to look black and not green.
So far we’ve spoke a lot about the different properties of color. We have physical properties of color (which are measurable), we have symbolic properties of color, we understand how the properties of color are different for light and paint. In the next lesson I will speak about the elephant in the room. Our brains, and how they process colors. No, this won’t be another section about emotion or symbolism. In this section it is more scientific as well as a trip into an area of science which still hasn’t concluded just why our brains process color the way that they do.