Thursday, March 26, 2015

How do you KNOW green is green?

Have you ever been in a color argument before? You know, when you're fabric shopping with your best friend and you're like, "I love this color red, it's my favorite!" and your BFF is like, "Umm, that's not red, that's tomato orange."

Or when your husband asks, "Which of the blue ties looks best with this jacket?" But when you look, you don't see two blue ties, you see one blue and one green!

Identifying colors can be tricky, because the color of an object depends somewhat on how you look at it. It depends on what kind of light source (or multiple sources) illuminates the object you see it, and what other conditions may exist. Also, if you're not well-versed in talking about color in Color Theory terms, you may be assigning personal preference terms to colors (like calling a red-orange color "tomato" or a certain shade of green "zombie puke"). And in some cases, people may actually have a deficiency when viewing colors, as in the case of my husband Tom who has some green colorblindness, making it difficult for him to tell the difference between some dark greens and other dark colors.

In fact, it was during a conversation we were having about color stuff the other night when Tom posed the question to me, "How do you know what the color green is? How do you know THAT is GREEN?" Great question, one that's worth taking a very close look at. How do you know a color is a color?

I think The Color Kittens said it best when declaring that it's easy to know the colors, because after all, "Red is red and blue is blue!"

We don't all have the natural ability to identify true hues as the Color Kittens do! So for the rest of us, here's some basic information about how we know what colors are, and some tools you can use to help you become better at identifying real colors.

Oh, but first, do you know the meaning of the term HUE? It can sometimes be interchangeable with the term "color" and refers to an absolute or exact color from the visual spectrum. As we learned from an earlier post about the visual spectrum, white light is the combination of all colors of the spectrum combined. The light travels in waves, and each of the spectral colors has a different wavelength. Within that wavelength range are slight variations of that color.

And by the way, our system of color as we experience it only exists within the human mind. No other animal or insect on this planet can see or experiences color exactly the way we do, and as far as we know, we are the only beings to construct such elaborate systems around colors. When you see a red car, the color only exists within your mind - your eye is perceiving long wavelengths of light reflecting off of the surface of the car, stimulating receptors in your eye that read only the longest wavelengths of light in the visual spectrum, sending a signal to your brain, where it is processed and you see the color as we know it to be RED. The red color is not inherent within the car itself, it does not exist outside our human sense of sight.

Our perception of sight and color has evolved specifically over millions of years to help us navigate on this planet - we see the way we do because of our planet's atmosphere and elemental composition, our closest star's constitution and distance from our planet. If our atmosphere were comprised of different elements, or if our planet were farther away from our nearest star, our sense of sight and perception of color would be very different indeed.

Back to the visual spectrum of light here on Earth! These wavelengths of light, as measured in nanometers, correspond the color names that we've given them (or that Newton has given them). Red being comprised of the longest wavelengths, violet of the shortest, and all the other colors falling out in between respectively. Below is a list of our named colors in the visual spectrum and their respective range of wavelengths.  Note that Newton's ROY G. BIV model of the spectrum includes blue, indigo, and violet; this model includes cyan, blue, and violet. Newton's blue corresponds to cyan in this model, and his indigo to blue.

Red = 740 - 625
Orange = 625 - 590
Yellow = 590 - 565
Green = 565 - 520
Cyan (a bright blue) = 520 - 500
Blue = 500 - 435
Violet = 435 - 380

Scientists can use Spectrophotometers to find the exact wavelength of light reflected from any object under controlled light conditions, and thus correctly identify the hue. Therefore, we can say without question what a true hue of red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue and violet are. We can also reproduce pretty exacting hues with special pigments or paints.

Since true hues of the spectrum are identifiable, that also means we can create some structured Color Systems.

One system you might be familiar with is common to design creatives, the Pantone system. In the Pantone system when a particular color must be communicated correctly, such as a business logo displayed across several different platforms (online as well as in printed documents or product containers, boxes, business cards, etc.), the color can be matched to one of Pantone's color chips which has a specific code attached. The printer, the webmaster, the product manufacturer can all color-match inks, printing, and website colors to the correct Pantone color with a code.

You may have also heard of the Munsell Color System, another system assigning a catalog system of numbers to different colors.

The Munsell system is what was used when I worked in an Historic Home, and we had a professional color analysis completed on layers of the original paint on the home's exterior. Munsell color numbers were assigned to each layer of paint from the analysis, and some paint stores were able to color-match modern paint with the numbers, allowing us to see the different colors the house had been painted over the last 100 years.

While Pantone has evolved into an incredible tool for design creatives with a full rainbow of colors, and Munsell has standardized codes for specific hues that can be matched and reproduced, neither of these systems are really helpful when learning to identify and discuss true hues as in Color Theory.

To learn about true hues of the spectrum, and to facilitate further study of color, there is an excellent  tool (my personal favorite) called Color Aid. Also a favorite of Color Theory pioneer and artist Joseph Albers, these specially printed colored papers are color matched to an absolute standard, are color fast (won't fade out or change if you keep them clean, dry, and away from bright light), and are all clearly identified with the hue, lightness, and saturation on the back of each color paper.

Above we identified the term hue as meaning a specific color of the spectrum. In the Color Aid set, lightness refers to if it is a regular hue and is a full color, if it is a tint with some black added, or if it is a shade with some white added. Saturation refers to how vivid a color appears; a bright red has more saturation than a dull red that has gray or black added in.

There are lots of ways to use Color Aid papers to learn about colors, but here's how I started. First, I wanted to learn more about the Artist's Color Wheel, based in the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. The Artist's Color Wheel has 12 colors displayed in a circle based on various combinations of the three primary colors. (More to come on the Artist's RYB Color Wheel in an upcoming post!)

First thing I did was to pull out of my Color Aid pack the true hues of the Artist's Color Wheel; red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow, yellow-green, green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet, violet, and red-violet.

On the back of each color paper is the hue, lightness, and saturation code for the color. You can see the code as "BG - HUE" which means blue-green, true hue, fully saturated.

From here I was able to really look at these colors and take them in. I carried them around with me in a sleeve protector when I was searching for fabrics to sew my own fabric Artist's Color Wheel. I played some simple color games with myself, pulling out scraps of fabric from my stash, trying to identify which hue the scraps most resembled. It was interesting to hold the color and think that these are, for reals, the actual hues I was looking at. Red is red, and blue is blue, just like the Color Kittens said.

In other words, once you learn what a true hue of red looks like, you're more likely to correctly identify it for what it is - red - and less likely to call it something more arbitrary like "Coke can red" or "cherry red." You are also more likely to notice mixes of colors and name them correctly - like a yellow-green which most people would just call "green."

These Color Aid full sets are not cheap - as the inks used to print the calibrated color fast papers are high-quality. But, there are some other sets as well, and I do highly recommend a full set if you are really interested in exploring and learning about Color Theory. Seeing the true colors in your hand while learning how tint, shade, and saturation directly affect colors is invaluable.

At the very least, you can spend a few bucks on your own copy of a portable Artist's Color Wheel tool like the one here (sold through most art supply stores and some quilting stores, too). This color wheel displays the true hues on the outer ring, and gives examples of tints and shades along the inside of the wheel. While the colors are not as true as the Color Aid set, it is pretty close for the money. A good tool if you want to explore color a bit, but aren't sure if you want to invest in a Color Aid set just yet.

And there you have it. This, my color loving friends, is how you know that green is really green, by using a color tool such as Color Aid or the Artist's Color Wheel. Once you start exploring these aspects of color; true hue, tint, and shade, you'll never lose a color argument again!

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Birth of Roy G. Biv and the Invention of the Color Wheel

Sir Isaac Newton's experiments with light in 166-1672 led to the birth of the mnemonic character "Roy G. Biv" and to the precursor to our modern Artist's Color Wheel.

Although through the ages many were aware of the phenomenon of a rainbow of colors appearing when light passes through a chunk or prism of glass, Newton was the first to discover that the rainbow is actually the full visible spectrum of component colors of white light.

Looking at the image of the visible spectrum above, or viewing a rainbow in person, or sunlight refracted through a prism, one notes how seamlessly the colors blend from one into another. In fact, Newton himself had a difficult time deciding how and where to dissect the rainbow. I've read that he struggled with how to separate and identify the spectrum, starting with around 11 different colors, then whittling it back down to 5 colors. Finally, Newton settled on 7 distinct major colors in the spectrum, the number inspired by similarities Newton noted between color and a musical scale (which had 7 notes).

So, as Newton reported in his 1672 New Theory of Light And Color, he named these 7 colors of the visual spectrum of light; red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, along with an indefinite variety of intermediate gradations. Take the first letter of each major color, and you get the mnemonic ROY G. BIV.

These days, many people debate the inclusion of both indigo and blue, as they are both in the blue family, and that there are only 6 major colors of the visual spectrum which include red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Others still name 7 spectral colors, but name Newton's blue cyan and his indigo blue (red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, violet).  So just be careful when passing on the moniker Roy G. Biv, as it can also be ROY G. CBV, or just ROY G. BV.

It also confused the hell out of my 6 year old to hear "indigo" added to the color spectrum after I've already drummed the 6 color version into her head! Color Systems, like the Artist's Color Wheel, are often described in 6 main colors - and we'll look into this more closely in later posts.

Regardless of how you spell it, you've got to give respect to Sir Isaac Newton for bringing Roy G. Biv into existence, not to mention giving us our first version of modern color wheels.

This may look a bit lopsided to us, but this is Newton's 1704 color circle presented in the book Opticks, in which his circular diagram of color is based directly on the widths of the colors in the visual spectrum from his earlier experiments. This included the 7 original spectral colors, with the orange and indigo slices diminished as compared to the other hues. The two most powerful concepts for artists put forth by Newton in his color circle are the concept of color mixing of light (or how the main colors can be mixed to produce the other colors), and the powerful relationship of colors directly opposite each other on the wheel, later termed complimentary colors.

This color circle is the predecessor to our modern color wheels, in which different color systems are  displayed in sets of 3, 6, or 12 colors (and sometimes more). While you may recognize some other early color wheels, such as:

Claude Boutet's color wheel (developed in conjunction with Newton) from 1706

Wilhelm von Bezold's color wheel, 1874.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's color wheel from 1810.

Or even Johannes Itten's color star first published in 1963, just remember - Newton's color wheel is the granddaddy of them all.
The color wheel we use today to find color harmonies, combinations, and relationships is the Artist's Color Wheel, otherwise known as the subtractive color system. This color system is based on artist's use of mixing pigments together to create new colors (so think paints - watercolors, acrylics, oil paints, or even fabric dyes). Curiously, this is not the same color system that dominates our direct daily experience with color, the additive color system of light, or how our human eyes perceive light and color.
In the not so distant past, artists working directly with pigments would exclusively study the Artists Color Wheel, honing their skills at mixing and mastering color through their selected medium. These days, Color Theory is more commonly taught to artists with the inclusion of both color systems; the subtractive system of the Artists Color Wheel, and the additive color system of light. So let's take a closer look at each in the next few posts, check out the similarities, differences, and how they relate to each other.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Patchwork Visual Spectrum Scarf

Naturally, I've got Color Theory on the brain, and I've been thinking a lot about light lately - and one night when I couldn't sleep, the idea for making this visual spectrum patchwork scarf popped in my head. And then it was all I could think about until I could make it!

Light is energy, and although we mostly perceive light as "white", it contains all the colors of the spectrum. You're probably familiar with this little nugget of knowledge from somewhere deep in your grade school past - Newton's light refraction experiment with a prism.

It goes like this - light travels in waves, all of the wavelengths together create white light. When travelling through a glass prism, the light wavelengths are split up or refracted, allowing us to see the different wavelengths as they appear in different colors. Quick - check out this awesome video explanation of the experiment.

As shown in the video, each of the colors of light spreading out has a measurable wavelength. Think about waves in the ocean - you can see the top of the wave, the crest, and in between each wave is a low point - like a valley. The waves of light are similar, and are measured from the top crest of one wave to the crest of the next.

These waves of light are very, very tiny and are measured in nanometers. Check out this video to get an idea of just how small a nanometer is! Red light waves are the longest, and diminish in length through the spectrum to violet, which has the shortest wavelength. Above is our visual spectrum of light as measured by their waves in nanometers.

Although the bands of light as seen refracted through a prism look about the same regardless of the light waves (the red band doesn't appear any wider than the violet band, although the red wavelengths measure about 700nm while violet waves are about 400nm), I decided to make my scarf a representation of the different wavelengths of the spectral colors.

So my idea was this - if red waves are the longest at about 700nm, with violet the shortest at about 400nm, and green is in between at about 5nm, then my bands of colored fabric would correspond in inches. At one end the red band is about 7.00 inches (to represent 700nm), in between the green band is about 5.00 inches (to represent 500nm), and at the other end the violet band is about 4.00 inches (to represent 400nm). All the other colors fall out in between, from longest bands representing the longest wavelengths down to the shortest.

This isn't a full tutorial, but I will share a bit of the process with you.

First, I created some improvisationally pieced fabric rectangles. Since this is a scarf made with just the fabric (no batting or extra layers), I used a very small stitch length while piecing - like 1.75mm. I also pressed all seams open, then top-stitched the seam allowances down from the top so that they would not get all crazy inside the finished scarf, or start to unravel. You can see one of the pressed open and topstitched seams in this photo of stitching some of the patchwork together.

As I cut each panel to size, I stitched them together using a 1/4 inch seam, pressed seams open and topstitched the seam allowances. Here's what it starts looking like.

Patchwork pieces all finished and stitched together. At this point the patchwork measures 13" wide and over 70 inches long.

Next, I pinned the long edges right sides together and stitched with a 1/2 inch seam allowance.

And pressed the long seam open all the way.

I took a few tacking stitches through the back scarf seam, using the free arm of the sewing machine to reach inside. I did this to help keep the seams flattened inside the scarf, and stitched along the seams between each of the color bands.

Then I pinned and stitched closed the ends of the scarf with a 1/2 inch seam allowance, leaving an opening 3 inches long at one end for turning the scarf right side out.

Turned the scarf inside out, pressed, and hand-stitched the opening closed.

On final pressing, I used a clapper to get the scarf nice and flat.
 After a trip through the washer and dryer, it's actually very cozy!
Loving it, and the best part to me is the reminder of how the colors we see are different vibrating waves of energy!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Three Is The Magic Number

Remember in the last post we looked at rodsand cones in the human eye? Cones are the photoreceptors in your eyes responsible for detecting colors, there are THREE different types of color cones, and this is how the process works.

Here’s a quick analogy for our eye’s color receptors. It’s a little like viewing pixels on an old LCD screen, did you ever look super up-close at an LCD computer screen? LCD screen displays are based on pixels that produce light in three colors; red, green and blue. Coincidentally, the three different color receptors in our eyes detect the same three colors of light; red, green, and blue.

Up close, you can see each individual pixel.

Look a little farther back, and you can see how each pixel lights up to create the illusion of all the colors (or no color, which displays as black). Get far enough away from the screen, and you don’t even notice the pixels.

When red, green, and blue light mix or blend together, it actually creates new, different colors. However, no matter what other colors of light you mix together, you cannot create red, green, or blue light. In the color system of light, red, green, and blue are the first or primary colors; all other colors can be mixed from them. Like this picture.

Where the primary colors of light come together in the center (red, green, and blue), it creates white light. When just two colors overlap, a new color is created. Red and green light make yellow. Green and blue light make cyan. Blue and red light make magenta. These are called the secondary colors, because they are each a mix of the two primaries. To expand further, you can mix secondary colors with primaries again, and in different amounts, to create even more colors.

In the color wheel above, red and yellow light mix to make orange. Blue and magenta mix to make violet – and so on.

The color system of light has three primary colors; red, green, and blue. When these primary colors mix together in different amounts, all the other colors (yeah, ALL the other colors) are created. A perfect mix of the three primaries makes white light; a lack of all three primaries results in black.

The color system of light is called Additive Color (because three primary colors of light are added together to create all others), and can be abbreviated as RGB (for red, green, and blue – the primary colors in this system). (If you are used to seeing the artists color wheel with red, yellow, and blue as the primaries, this might be a bit confusing. Don't get too hung up about it, just know that the artists color wheel is a different color system called Subtractive Color, sometimes abbreviated as RYB.)

To sum up, take a quick look at this awesome video lesson on How We See Color.

And let's pause to think again about the visible spectrum of light, which we know is made up of different wavelengths. We have named different wavelengths as different colors, red being comprised of the longest wavelengths, blue and violet at the other end with the shortest wavelengths, and green in between with medium wavelengths of light. Another way to look at how your eye sees color is to think of the three different receptors in your eye as set to receive the three different wavelengths of visual light; short, medium, and long wavelengths. When the wavelength receptor in your eye that can detect only the longest wavelength of visual light is stimulated, it sends a message to your brain, and you perceive a color - one that we've named RED. The wavelength receptor in your eye that can detect only medium wavelengths of visual light are perceived as GREEN. And, the wavelength receptor in your eye that can detect only the shortest wavelengths are perceived as BLUE. Wavelengths that are mixes or in-between what our wavelength receptors read set off a combination of signals from more than one receptor; signals that our brains determine mean different colors - like yellow, orange, or purple.

Look at this apple. Right now, the red (or longest wavelength) photoreceptors are being stimulated in your eyes and are firing off signals to your brain. Your brain is telling you this color is RED.


Now, what about this apple?

Right now both red and green photoreceptors are firing off in your eyes (a mix of wavelength receptors stimulated at once), and as the red and green receptors combine to make yellow, your brain is telling you YELLOW.

Get it? Okay! Although our eyes have developed to work this way, there are some limitations that can lead to some pretty interesting optical illusions. Some of these optical illusions (and the science behind them) form the basis for part of the study of Color Theory; the interaction between colors. So have fun with these eye games!

Gradient Illusion

The gray bar in the center of the picture appears to be lighter at one end and darker at the other. But, place your fingers over the middle of the bar and you will find that the bar is a solid color - only the background is different in shade.  

Simultaneous Contrast


The center squares appear to be different shades of gray, but are actually one in the same shade. Different shades in the background squares create the optical illusion that the center squares are all different.

The same effect with colors.

A similar effect with a solid color on gradients can be found here.

After Images

Stare at the small dot in the center of the flag for 20 Mississippi's, then look at a blank wall or white piece of paper. Your color receptors start to fatigue after staring at the image, and start to slow down the signals being sent to your brain. After finally looking away, you see the exact opposite (or complimentary) color!
Pattern Recognition


There's no square in the picture above, but your brain sure sees one! That's pattern recognition in the brain for you, always trying to connect the dots.

Try these links also for even more optical illusions! A big list of optical illusions at Distractify, and 10 more at

Next post we will look at a little history behind color systems and the color wheel, because parts of color theory are based in using these tools. Until then, do you know RoyG. Biv?

Saturday, January 10, 2015

What Does Your Eye See?

We’ve looked at some of the basic principles of visible light, but how does your eye “see” that light?

Your eye is a sphere, has one small opening at the front to allow light to enter, and is coated at the back with cells that respond to light.
Don’t worry about all the terms in the illustration above, just take note that the light enters through the lens and is directed to the retina. No pop-quizzes or final exams, okay?

Let's check out an age-old but simple illustration of how your eye works, the Camera Obscura. Ancient philosophers were aware of what happens on a bright day in a darkened room when light is allowed to enter through a very small pinhole in one side of the room. A detailed image of what’s outside the room will appear on the opposite wall, flipped upside down.

This phenomenon has been termed “Camera Obscura,” a Latin phrase translated literally as “dark chamber.” Arab philosopher Abu Ali al-Hasan, a.k.a. Alhazen (965 – 1040 AD) recorded his experiments with light, including playing around with the camera obscura. Alhazan not only wrote extensively about optics, working with prisms and refracted light 700 years before Newton, but was the first to understand how the human eye really worked.

Try making your own camera obscura with this tutorial!


Or go all out and transform an entire room into one giant modern camera obscura!

Your eye works in a similar way when viewing an image, and yes, the images entering your eye are totally upside down!

As you’ll discover if you play with your own camera obscura viewer, it works great with bright light, but won't show an image in low light. You might be thinking hey, just make the hole bigger to let in more light, right? But if you make the hole too large, the image will no longer appear in sharp focus, and you’ll just see a blob of light.

Try this one – grab a magnifying glass and a white piece of paper. Stand near a strong light source, light a light or a brightly lit window. Hold the paper in one hand, and place the magnifying glass between the light source and the paper. Move the magnifying glass back and forth until an image appears - and notice how the image goes out of focus just by moving the lens slightly. Check out that just as in the camera obscura, the image appears upside down.


Using a lens is a way to focus an image while using a larger hole to allow in more light. Your eye utilizes a lens along with an opening that can change from super small to let in just a little light to a bigger opening in order to let in more light - it's how your eyes adapt to different light situations to still see a clear image. Just as you can move the magnifying glass back and forth to focus the image on the paper, your eye has the ability to focus, too. Right now, look at something far away from you across the room - then back at your computer again - and notice your eye changing focus!

Awesome, right? Now, what happens once that crisp and clear image is focused through the opening and lens on the retina at the back of your eye?
Your retina is covered with cells that respond to light called photoreceptors. There are two types of photoreceptors in your eyes, rods and cones. Click and watch this quick video to learn the basic differences between rods and cones. The rods live mostly around the edge of the retina, and the cones are concentrated right in the center.

Next, check out this video for a cool microscopic view of the eye, and an explanation of color perception on a molecular level.
The important difference between the two types of photoreceptors is this: rods are responsible for light/dark vision working in low-light situations, while cones are responsible for color recognition working best with ample light.
Cones also come in three color-receiving flavors; red, green, and blue. How you perceive different colors, and even the color white, happen when several of the color cones fire at the same time. It may be like looking at a pixilated color photo or a Georges Seurat painting. We don’t experience the image that way because our brain is processing the signals from the photoreceptors into all kinds of color blends, shades, and tints (and even more about the brain’s response to color in the next post).
Are you still with me? Light enters your eyes through a small hole, a lens focuses the image on the retina, and photoreceptors called rods and cones receive both light and color information from the image. And that is how your eye “sees.”
What your eye sees isn’t at all what you perceive, because your brain is constantly processing and adjusting that image for you.

On the left, what the raw-image from your eye might look like before being "read" by your bran. On the right, the image you perceive.
Because eyes are physiological structures, they’re not all the same. Which means that how you see color may not be the same way that I see color. Word! Check this out:
  • We are all born color blind as our eyes are still developing after birth. By about 6 months of age, our sense of color will become fully developed.
  • Color blind people are missing one or more of the three types of color rods in the eye, and men are more likely to be color blind than women.
  • An average human eye can detect over 10 million different colors and over 500 shades of gray.
  • A small percent of women have extra retinal cones allowing the perception of over 100 million different colors.
  • Physiological limitations in your eye also cause a few interesting optical illusions such as afterimages and Mach Bands, click to check it out.
The fact that eyes are the first step in our personal interaction with color, and that eyes are not always perfect, means that there can be differences in the way some of us see color. Just another reason why, if you love and work with color in your craft or art, it’s important to learn the language of color theory. Color theory can give you finite tools to discuss, perceive, communicate, and use color more effectively.
Stay tuned, next up we’ll look at your brain on color!