• Allan Weck

Color and Pigments

Green grapes, red stop signs and blue lightning. Our world is full of color. All of the colors you see live in the visible spectrum. The industrial revolution made it easier for artists to use more colors in their work. Today, entire brand identities are built around certain colors.

Isaac Newton made quite a few important discoveries in his life. One of his bigger ones was that white light is actually comprised of all the colors in the visible spectrum. It’s the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that the human eye can see. Popular thinking at the time was that white light was pure, and when a prism split the light, it was just an illusion from imperfect glass. When light wavelengths are combined to make colors, this is called additive color mixing. The screen you’re looking at this on is using additive mixing. Mixing paint or dyes on the other hand uses subtractive color mixing. A red apple is absorbing, or subtracting, all the non-red wavelengths from the light, and reflecting the red ones back at your eyes. Subtractive mixing is taking away more wavelengths to produce the desired result.

For artists hundreds of years ago, subtractive mixing and cheap pigments could lead to disappointing results. The Industrial Revolution brought on commercially available paints, allowing artists to spend less time mixing their own pigments and other dangerous chemicals to get what they were looking for. It was easier to take the paint outside and work in nature. Colors that already existed were also further refined and improved. This was a big factor in the explosion of new colors during the impressionist movement. The period allowed for all sorts of experimentation.

Today, you see color used in everything from branding to transportation. Even when it’s covered in snow, you can tell from the little red bits sticking out which sign is the stop sign. In transportation, red generally means stop, whether it’s a light or a sign. Red is also used a lot with yellow in a few popular fast food restaurant logos, which you see on big signs up and down the highway. Red is the longest wavelength in the visible spectrum, so it’s the easiest color to see from a distance. Think about how many natural or health stores you know of that use green in their logo. Companies that are serious about their branding take that color palette they establish and carry it over to things like websites and advertising. It’s part of their identity.

The options are limitless with color now, so having a palette you can reference is important. Even the impressionists, for all their innovating, had their own favorites they went back to over and over again. When we’re planning out a project, color is just as important as the other elements. Poor color harmony can make the entire piece feel off. If you want a brand to be recognizable, keeping a consistent color palette is important.

If you want to learn more about the history of colors and their uses over time, read The Secret Lives Of Color by Kassia St. Clair. It gives a bit of broader color history, then it delves into the history of plenty of the specific colors we see every day.

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