The Idea of Color

Roger returning from painting “en plein air”

I’ve been thinking about color this week as I’ve been working. I should say the idea of color. Let me explain…

If you think that color is a physical thing, an apple is red, the sky is blue, you may have to think again.

What is color anyway? Think about how they make paint. On it’s simplest level they take a substance like clay for example, and mix it with a binder (oil, wax, glycerine, latex,etc..) to produce a paint, eg. yellow (ochre), brown (sienna, umber). But what is the color? Clays have color but are not the color.

Color is light refraction off of the surface of the clay. This is true for the color of all objects. A red apple is not actually red, it is refracting light that appears red to us. If you don’t believe me, think about what an apple looks like in moon light; gray. The same goes for red paint. the paint isn’t red but it appears that way to us.

So lets talk about this appears to be thing. Light coming from a window illuminates an apple on a table. The light is refracted by the surface of the apple into various wavelengths (like a prism)  and travels to your eye. Your eye transmits this wavelength into electrons that flow to your brain and your brain says that appears to be red.

Here is where it gets interesting. What if you are colorblind? Literally your eye cannot process this wavelength so you don’t see red but some variation of color. You may recognize this color as red but it is not the same as what a normal eye would see. Color is subjective in this way. Even to a normal eye everyone sees color differently. It is an idea of red.

Is our perception of color tied to our language skills? We are, after all, talking about an idea. Listen to this fascinating episode of Radiolab from National Public Radio. They make the case that without language color doesn’t exit.

Have you ever thought about how blind people perceive the idea of color? Have you ever tried to describe a color in other than visual terms? I always resort to descriptions that involve other senses and emotions.

Can you know the blues without visually perceiving the color? Emotion has always been associated with and affected by the idea of color. This is the strength of the idea of color in all arts. The idea makes you feel.