In Living Color January 7, 2002
The Physics of Color
Color has a way of creeping into our cheeks — "red as a beet" — or our personalities — "green with envy." A "color commentator" relates important statistics and interesting anecdotes about a sporting event. And product manuals often utilize "spot color" to highlight the main points or features of a product.

Color surrounds us. In nature, at school and at home, even at the stores in the mall, color not only provides essential visual cues to our physical world, but also influences our feelings and maybe our thoughts. In what other ways does color influence our lives?

Color begins with light. In the early 1600s Sir Isaac Newton showed that a glass prism caused white light to spread out — or disperse — into a range, or spectrum, of colors. Newton named these segments of color with seven familiar names: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Imagine light as a constant flow of tiny waves of varying length. A beam of light has frequency, wavelength, and energy. The colors we see are found in a very narrow range of wavelengths along the visible spectrum of light. These wavelengths range from about 400 nm at the indigo end to about 700 nm at the red end of the spectrum. Forms of light we cannot see — X rays, microwaves, and radio waves — fall on either end of the visible spectrum.

  • Look at the visible spectrum of light.
  • Follow in Newton's footsteps by simulating how a prism disperses white light (the combination of all colors) in Riverdeep's Physics Explorer activity Dispersion of White Light.
  • See how light of varying wavelengths (different colors) affects the rate of photosynthesis in Riverdeep's Biology Gateways activity Why Are Leaves Green?

Energetic Color
Frequency: the number of waves passing a point in a given unit of time (second). Measured in hertz.

Wavelength: the distance between two consecutive peaks of a wave. Measured in nanometers.

A Full Palette
Artists recognize the primary colors as red, yellow, and blue. These are pure colors that cannot be created by mixing any other colors. Mixing any two primary colors produces a secondary color (orange, green, and purple/violet). Mixing a secondary color with a primary color produces an intermediate or tertiary color (yellow-green, red-orange, blue-violet). Complementary colors are directly across from one another on the color wheel.

However, the scientific palette of colors differs slightly from the artistic. The spectrum breaks down into the primary colors of red, green, and blue, or additive colors.

Mixing these three colors in equal amounts produces white. Mixing two of these colors produces another color — cyan, magenta, or yellow — the subtractive colors. This color system, known by the initials RGB, is used in computer monitors and television sets. Dots of red, green, and blue create the image. Yellow, cyan, and magenta appear where the dots overlap.

Magazines and other printed materials use a system that separates the subtractive colors — cyan, magenta, and yellow — and black into millions of dots of color of different sizes, patterns, and percentages on a page. Our eyes recombine these individual dots to form the colorful images in magazines and catalogs. This system is also known by the initials CMYK ("K" indicates black), or as process color.

Color Your Mood

Colors affect our mood. Warm colors — red, orange, and brown — make us feel safe and protected. Cool colors — blue, green, and aqua — tend to pacify or relax. Colors that grab our attention the fastest are those at the warm end of the spectrum, so it's no surprise that the most important element of a design is red or another vibrant, warm color.

In the columns titled "Qualities," write down the characteristics you associate with these colors.

Color Qualities

Hue Are You?
A color's hue is its name. Add black to a hue to produce a shade. Add white to a hue to see a tint.

Intensity is the brightness or dullness of a color. It is relative to the absolute brightness of a color, that being undiluted color. A color's intensity is changed by adding other colors to it.

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of a hue. This quality is also relative to other colors.

A Rose by any Other Name
Some companies want unique, unforgettable color names that speak to a particular segment of society. The crayon manufacturer, Crayola, got consumers to choose names for its new crayons in 1993. People chose names like "macaroni and cheese," "denim," and "timber wolf."

Read more about Crayola's colors on the company's Color Corner page.

A Colorful Message
Color communicates powerful messages without words. Color experts have determined that "classifier colors," such as burgundy, narrow the market for a certain product, while "declassifier colors," such as orange, tend to broaden the appeal of a product. These classifications can be applied to concepts related to product packaging, interior design, and car colors.

Our own experiences also affect our perception of color. Certain colors can evoke emotions, smells, and even memories. Advertisers and manufacturers also pay attention to other factors that affect our perception of color:

  • Demographics: The younger the audience, the more essential the color message. Thanks to advances in computer technology, kids want and expect bright, vivid colors. Hot, bright, neon colors appear on backpacks, clothing, and bicycles. Sometimes kids choose a color, slime green for example, just because it repels their parents, thus making it more appealing.

    Color choices are made along gender, ethnic, or cultural lines as well. In North America, white is associated with snow, youth, and bridal gowns. But in China, white is the color worn for mourning. Among Caucasians, red commonly sends a message of power. However, among Hispanics, bright blue sends the same message.

  • Technology: Some color experts predict that numerous shades of copper, bronze, and metallic colors will appear over the next few years to conform to a more "high tech" view of color. These complex colors say "exciting" and "new," and appeal to our sophisticated visual expectations.

    The Color Marketing Group is a nonprofit organization of professional designers from a number of industries who meet twice a year to make color forecasts. The forecasts are based on social trends, politics, art, fashion, and technology. As a result of these conferences, the professionals provide a one- to three-year forecast and a color palette that can be used in industries from hotels, health care, architecture, and fashion. Read what the Color Marketing Group has to say about what colors will be big in 2002.

More Links
Learn more about how products are designed with colors in mind.

"The Meaning of Color for Gender" looks to the results of studies that indicate how men and women regard, identify, and perceive color.

Find out about the practical use of color in everyday life from

Related Resources
Examine color theories in The Art of Color by Johannes Itten.

Read The Power of Color by Dr. Morton Walker.

Your Own Market Research
Now that you know a little bit about how advertisers and marketers look at color, take a look at a specific group of products (soft drinks or cereals) in the supermarket, keeping in mind the following questions:

  • What do you notice about the colors of the packages? Are the colors bright and vibrant or dull and dreary?
  • Do different manufacturers use the same colors? What colors are used the most? Why do you think these colors are used most often? What message do these colors convey?
  • What colors don't you see? Why do you think certain colors are missing?

Related Activities
Dispersion of White Light
Simulate how a prism disperses white light (the combination of all colors) in this Physics Explorer activity (for high school students).
What Makes a Rainbow?
Experiment with mixing primary color lights to make new colors in this activity from Middle School Science Gateways.
Why are Leaves Green?
See how light of varying wavelengths (different colors) affects the rate of photosynthesis in this Biology Gateways activity (for high school students).