Things you didn’t know about color

Ever since a certain age, it has really bugged me when people included indigo in their list of rainbow colors. You know the old mnemonic, Roy G. Biv? Red, orange, yellow, Green, Blue, indigo, and violet. Well, props to the mnemonic maker for getting them in the right order, but indigo doesn’t actually belong in there.

Nice try, Steve! But you’re WRONG.

See, here’s the problem. The color wheel that this is working off of begins with three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Mix equal parts of any two of these primary colors, and you get one of the secondary colors: one part red and one part yellow makes orange, one part yellow and one part blue makes green, one part blue and one part red makes purple. With me so far?

But where’s indigo? I hear you say. All the other colors of “Roy G. Biv” are on there. But not indigo. Why? Because indigo is a tertiary color. Tertiary colors are what you get when you mix a primary and a secondary color. One part blue and one part green (or two parts blue and one part yellow, if you want to break it down) make teal. Yellow and green make yellow-green. Yellow and orange make yellow-orange. Orange and red make orange-red. Red and violent make red-violet (very creative names, aren’t they?). And finally, purple and blue make indigo.

In other words, “Roy G. Biv” contains all three primary colors, all three secondary colors, and… ONE out of SIX tertiary colors. If one of them’s in there, my organized little soul argues, all six tertiary colors should be in there. And if you don’t want to include them all (and who would?) then leave indigo out of it! Of course this ruins Roy’s last name.

Sorry, Roy.

But I have more things about colors to blow your mind about.

See, when I was a kid and was taught this basic color theory, they told them that primary colors (red, yellow, and blue) were called primary because they couldn’t be created by mixing together existing colors. You couldn’t mix any two colors to get red: red just was. However, you could use those three primary colors to create any other color!

Even chartreuse. Although why would you want to?

But a few years ago, I learned this wasn’t actually true. Wikipedia says,

A set of primary colors is a small, arbitrary set of pigmented physical media, lights or purely abstract elements of a mathematical colorspace model. Distinct colors from a larger gamut can be specified in terms of a mixture of primary colors which facilitates technological applications such as painting, electronic displays and printing. Any small set of pigments or lights are “imperfect” physical primary colors in that they cannot be mixed to yield all possible colors that can be perceived by the human color vision system.

Translation: you CAN’T actually make all colors from any set of primary colors. I mean, how do you mix together the bold red, yellow, and blue above to make highlighter yellow?

Go on, try. I dare you.

The wikipedia article then gives two sets of primary colors: one for “additive” colors (that is, when you use colored lights, like putting colored glass filters over a spotlight) and another for “subtractive” colors (like when you’re using paints). The additive primary colors are red, green and blue–this is what your computer screen uses when it mixes different colors of lights to create images on the screen. But the subtractive primary colors are… (drumroll…)  magenta, yellow and cyan.


Here’s how the additive (colored lights) primaries work:

Blue and neon green make cyan, neon green and red make yellow, red and blue make magenta, all three together make white, and an absence of all three make black.

The subtractive system works the opposite way.

Though wikipedia points out that they make an imperfect black when mixed together.

But I mean, they’ve got a point. You can’t mix colors to make neon green and cyan any more than I can think of a way to mix colors to get highlighter yellow–which you may have noticed your computer can hardly depict. I had to show it in a photograph so that your mind could fill in the particular neon shade, because if you google “highlighter yellow,” this is what it comes up with:

Which I think you’ll agree, isn’t actually the color a highlighter writes in. But when I showed it in the photo of the shoes, it seems closer, because your brain compares the color of the shoes, as depicted on the screen, to the color of the skin and ground, as depicted on the screen, and helps to fill in that special neon shade.

It also explains why I could never figure out where pink or magenta went in the “Roy G. Bv” color wheel until I saw a computer’s color wheel with cyan and magenta.

The same people who taught me that the primaries were red, yellow, and blue also taught me that colors came in opposites: red and green, blue and orange, yellow and purple, the colors opposite one another in the color wheel. These were the contrasting colors. But on the computerized color wheel, you can see that neon green is opposite magenta, blue opposite yellow, red opposite cyan. This is how your eyes work, too: if you stare at something for a long time and then look at a blank wall, you can see the afterimage, shown in opposite colors like a photo negative.

Stare at any one point in this image for thirty seconds and then look at a blank wall, and you will see the original colors.

Oh, but wait! IT GETS EVEN BETTER. Ready to have your mind blown?

People couldn’t always seen the color blue.

MWA HA HA HA HA I love when I get to this point…

Okay. So, what you can perceive in the world is to a large extent determined by your language and culture. If we didn’t have the word “hipster,” if we didn’t have a cultural concept of the “hipster”, we wouldn’t recognize a hipster when we saw one.

“Come on–it’s me, Steve! We went to elementary school together!”
“Sorry, man–I can’t recognize a hipster.”

So far so good. But this is true even for things we think are basic, like our visual perceptions of the world. Most of the women reading this have had the experience of telling a man to find the “salmon-colored” handout, only to have the man look at her blankly. And when you point to the salmon-colored paper, the man goes, “But that’s orange!” and refuses to believe that there’s any major different between salmon and orange, even though to the woman, they might look like totally different shades.

I’m not just being sexist here, either. “Linguistic research [has shown] that women possess a larger vocabulary than men for describing colors”–probably because women actually see more colors. “Neuroscientists have discovered that women are better at distinguishing among subtle distinctions in color, while men appear more sensitive to objects moving across their field of vision.” (Source) The scientists suggested tentatively that it’s because women in hunter/gatherer societies had to tell the difference between subtle shades of berries–but I think it’s probably because women are taught from a young age that their appearance/makeup/clothes matter a LOT, and women are therefore taught to differentiate between different shades in these consumer items. But either way, women see more shades than men. (We also see slightly DIFFERENT shades than men: “The researchers also found that men require a slightly longer wavelength to see the same hue as women; an object that women experience as orange will look slightly more yellowish to men, while green will look more blue-green to men.” [Same source] Apparently this has to do with male sex hormones.)

But anyway.

Because how we perceive the world is partly constructed by our culture, this means that color perception differs from culture to culture. In ancient western cultures, people apparently couldn’t seen the color blue. The ancient Greek poet Homer described the sky as being the color of bronze, and referred famously to the “wine-dark sea”. Um… the sea isn’t burgundy.

Not-yet-Prime-Minister William Gladstone counted up the color words in Homer’s Iliad.

While black is mentioned almost 200 times and white about 100, other colors are rare. Red is mentioned fewer than 15 times, and yellow and green fewer than 10. Gladstone started looking at other ancient Greek texts and noticed the same thing — there was never anything described as “blue.” The word didn’t even exist.

It seemed the Greeks lived in a murky and muddy world, devoid of color, mostly black and white and metallic, with occasional flashes of red or yellow.

Gladstone thought this was perhaps something unique to the Greeks, but a philologist named Lazarus Geiger followed up on his work and noticed this was true across cultures.

He studied Icelandic sagas, the Koran, ancient Chinese stories, and an ancient Hebrew version of the Bible.  (Source)

He also looked at ancient Hindu Vedic hymns: none of them mention blue.

Apparently, in most societies, people did not originally perceive blue:

Geiger looked to see when “blue” started to appear in languages and found an odd pattern all over the world.

Every language first had a word for black and for white, or dark and light. The next word for a color to come into existence — in every language studied around the world — was red, the color of blood and wine.

After red, historically, yellow appears, and later, green (though in a couple of languages, yellow and green switch places). The last of these colors to appear in every language is blue.

The only ancient culture to develop a word for blue was the Egyptians — and as it happens, they were also the only culture that had a way to produce a blue dye. (Same Source)

As in the situation with women using more color words than men, researcher Jules Davidoff wondered if cultures with different color words saw colors differently. He approached the Himba tribe of Namibia, whose language has no word for blue or distinction between blue and green. He gave them a color test, showing them a random assortment of colored blocks and asking them which one was a different color than the rest. It looked like this:

Easy, right? We English speakers have no trouble telling which one is a different color. However, “When shown a circle with 11 green squares and one blue, they could not pick out which one was different from the others — or those who could see a difference took much longer and made more mistakes than would make sense to us, who can clearly spot the blue square.”

But before you’re tempted to laugh at those Himba for having such poor color perception: the experiment had a second phase. You see, the Himba have a LOT of words for different shades of green: much more than “lime” and “avocado”. So Davidoff gave them a second color test, in which they had to tell which block was a different shade of green than the rest. Here’s the test:

Can YOU tell which one’s different? I sure couldn’t–and I always score really high on color acuity tests. But the Himba had no trouble.

By the way, it was this one:

I literally had to take a screenshot of the test and lay the blocks over one another to prove to myself that this was correct. Sure enough, when I laid that block over the other green squares, I could perceive a very slight difference between them. But I couldn’t see it when they were separated.

Another study by MIT scientists in 2007 showed that native Russian speakers, who don’t have one single word for blue, but instead have a word for light blue (goluboy) and dark blue (siniy), can discriminate between light and dark shades of blue much faster than English speakers.

This all suggests that, until they had a word from it, it’s likely that our ancestors didn’t see blue at all. Or, more accurately, they probably saw it as we do now, but they never really noticed it. And that’s pretty cool. (Source)

So indigo doesn’t belong in Roy G. Biv, red isn’t actually a primary color, cyan IS, men and women perceive color differently, ancient people around the world couldn’t perceive the color blue, and you don’t know the difference between two shades of green that the Himba of Namibia think is OBVIOUS. Is your mind blown?


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