A Brief History in Color – Part II

By Winn Apple   |   Published September, 2013

“It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works—that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.” – Carl Sagan

Poetic and brilliant Carl – it is indeed part of our very nature to attempt to understand the world around us. The perception of color has stirred many a great mind.

As a follow up to last week’s exploration of man’s creation and use of color, we shall now dive into man’s desire to comprehend the mechanics behind one of nature’s greatest gifts…color.

Aristotle’s early studies of light and color yielded the discovery that by mixing two colors, a third is produced. He achieved this by placing a blue and yellow piece of glass one on top of the other, noticing that as light passed through, a third color green was produced.

In 1666 Isaac Newton made a study of color resulting in the Newton Wheel, a tool devised to illustrate the relationships between primary, secondary and complimentary colors. This chart was conceived from his experiments with sunlight by noticing that white light divides into seven different colors when passing through a prism, an effect he coined as spectrum.

Artists adapted this chart to what they knew empirically – modifying his diagram to create a color wheel consisting of the three primary colors- red, yellow and blue with the complimentary color opposite each.

Because Newton did not understand the difference between additive and subtractive color mixing, his observations were argued to be inaccurate or incomplete.

In 1775, a German printer by the name of Jakob Christoffel Le Blon solved many of the practical problems surrounding Newton’s chart. He invented a way of using three different printing plates to create a color picture. Each plate was inked with one of the primary colors, red, yellow or blue – occasionally adding black.

Le Bon was the first person to clearly state that there is a difference between additive and subtractive colors. His method has become the basis for the tri colored printing we do today.

In the 1920’s, working independently, John Guild and W. David Wright set out to determine how the average person perceives color. Two beams of light, containing the three primary colors, were cast on one side of a box while an observer was situated on the other. Looking through two holes, the observer was instructed to adjust the light of one beam until it matched the color of the other.

They found that the same color could be created by many different combinations of red, green and blue lights. This property of color is called metamerism.

Based on Wright’s and Guild’s work, the International Commission on Illumination or CIE set out to define color mathematically for the first time. The intent was to create a language for color which would accurately communicate each variation exactly. In 1931 the CIE color system came into being – using an abstract mathematical model to describe the way colors can be represented.

The CIE color system became the international standard and is still used today.

It is amazing the multitude of experiments, inquiries and discoveries which have lead up to the way man translates color. Our use of color, in an ever expanding range of medium, was first born out of prehistoric man’s motivation to convey the world around them with merely a chunk of dried earth applied to a cave wall.

We have evolved well beyond the cave wall, and the color range far exceed that available to our ancestors. Achieving this range with precision requires skilled technicians when printing.

When you are considering your next printed piece, look to Bacchus Press. We haven’t been around since the stone age…but we’ve got 31 years under our belts!

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About the Author

In addition to crafting content and blogs, Winn Apple writes short stories and novellas for middle-grade readers. You can find her short stories along with a portfolio on her site, MysticJunkyard.com or on her soon to release website, snugbuggle.com – the best darn place to find short stories for kids.


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