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Blue of the ultramarine variant, similar to the International Klein Blue used by Yves Klein
Blue of the ultramarine variant, similar to the International Klein Blue used by Yves Klein

"There are certain effects of colour that give all men pleasure, and others which jar, almost like a musical discord. A more general development of this sensibility would make possible a new abstract art, an art that should deal with colours as music does with sound." --The Sense of Beauty (1896)

"Ken Nordine produced the album Colors (1966) with musical compositions about 34 colors."--Sholem Stein

 Monochrome: Illustration: Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel at Night (1882) by Paul Bilhaud, here shown in the 1887 version appropriated by Alphonse Allais as published in Album primo-avrilesque (April fool-ish Album)
Illustration: Negroes Fighting in a Tunnel at Night (1882) by Paul Bilhaud, here shown in the 1887 version appropriated by Alphonse Allais as published in Album primo-avrilesque (April fool-ish Album)

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Colour is the visual perceptual property corresponding in humans to the categories called red, blue, yellow, etc. Color derives from the spectrum of light (distribution of light power versus wavelength) interacting in the eye with the spectral sensitivities of the light receptors. Color categories and physical specifications of color are also associated with objects or materials based on their physical properties such as light absorption, reflection, or emission spectra. By defining a color space colors can be identified numerically by their coordinates.

Because perception of color stems from the varying spectral sensitivity of different types of cone cells in the retina to different parts of the spectrum, colors may be defined and quantified by the degree to which they stimulate these cells. These physical or physiological quantifications of color, however, do not fully explain the psychophysical perception of color appearance.

The science of color is sometimes called chromatics, colorimetry, or simply color science. It includes the perception of color by the human eye and brain, the origin of color in materials, color theory in art, and the physics of electromagnetic radiation in the visible range (that is, what we commonly refer to simply as light).



Development of theories of color vision

color theory

Although Aristotle and other ancient scientists had already written on the nature of light and color vision, it was not until Newton that light was identified as the source of the color sensation. In 1810, Goethe published his comprehensive Theory of Colors in which he ascribed physiological effects to color that are now understood as psychological.

In 1801 Thomas Young proposed his trichromatic theory, based on the observation that any color could be matched with a combination of three lights. This theory was later refined by James Clerk Maxwell and Hermann von Helmholtz. As Helmholtz puts it, "the principles of Newton's law of mixture were experimentally confirmed by Maxwell in 1856. Young's theory of color sensations, like so much else that this marvelous investigator achieved in advance of his time, remained unnoticed until Maxwell directed attention to it."

At the same time as Helmholtz, Ewald Hering developed the opponent process theory of color, noting that color blindness and afterimages typically come in opponent pairs (red-green, blue-orange, yellow-violet, and black-white). Ultimately these two theories were synthesized in 1957 by Hurvich and Jameson, who showed that retinal processing corresponds to the trichromatic theory, while processing at the level of the lateral geniculate nucleus corresponds to the opponent theory.

In 1931, an international group of experts known as the Commission internationale de l'éclairage (CIE) developed a mathematical color model, which mapped out the space of observable colors and assigned a set of three numbers to each.

Nonstandard color perception

Color deficiency

If one or more types of a person's color-sensing cones are missing or less responsive than normal to incoming light, that person can distinguish fewer colors and is said to be color deficient or color blind (though this latter term can be misleading; almost all color deficient individuals can distinguish at least some colors). Some kinds of color deficiency are caused by anomalies in the number or nature of cones in the retina. Others (like central or cortical achromatopsia) are caused by neural anomalies in those parts of the brain where visual processing takes place.


While most humans are trichromatic (having three types of color receptors), many animals, known as tetrachromats, have four types. These include some species of spiders, most marsupials, birds, reptiles, and many species of fish. Other species are sensitive to only two axes of color or do not perceive color at all; these are called dichromats and monochromats respectively. A distinction is made between retinal tetrachromacy (having four pigments in cone cells in the retina, compared to three in trichromats) and functional tetrachromacy (having the ability to make enhanced color discriminations based on that retinal difference). As many as half of all women are retinal tetrachromats. The phenomenon arises when an individual receives two slightly different copies of the gene for either the medium- or long-wavelength cones, which are carried on the x-chromosome. To have two different genes, a person must have two x-chromosomes, which is why the phenomenon only occurs in women. For some of these retinal tetrachromats, color discriminations are enhanced, making them functional tetrachromats.


In certain forms of synesthesia/ideasthesia, perceiving letters and numbers (grapheme–color synesthesia) or hearing musical sounds (music–color synesthesia) will lead to the unusual additional experiences of seeing colors. Behavioral and functional neuroimaging experiments have demonstrated that these color experiences lead to changes in behavioral tasks and lead to increased activation of brain regions involved in color perception, thus demonstrating their reality, and similarity to real color percepts, albeit evoked through a non-standard route.


After exposure to strong light in their sensitivity range, photoreceptors of a given type become desensitized. For a few seconds after the light ceases, they will continue to signal less strongly than they otherwise would. Colors observed during that period will appear to lack the color component detected by the desensitized photoreceptors. This effect is responsible for the phenomenon of afterimages, in which the eye may continue to see a bright figure after looking away from it, but in a complementary color.

Afterimage effects have also been utilized by artists, including Vincent van Gogh.

Color naming

Colors vary in several different ways, including hue (shades of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet), saturation, brightness, and gloss. Some color words are derived from the name of an object of that color, such as "orange" or "salmon", while others are abstract, like "red".

In the 1969 study Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution, Brent Berlin and Paul Kay describe a pattern in naming "basic" colors (like "red" but not "red-orange" or "dark red" or "blood red", which are "shades" of red). All languages that have two "basic" color names distinguish dark/cool colors from bright/warm colors. The next colors to be distinguished are usually red and then yellow or green. All languages with six "basic" colors include black, white, red, green, blue, and yellow. The pattern holds up to a set of twelve: black, gray, white, pink, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, brown, and azure (distinct from blue in Russian and Italian, but not English).


Individual colors have a variety of cultural associations such as national colors (in general described in individual color articles and color symbolism). The field of color psychology attempts to identify the effects of color on human emotion and activity. Chromotherapy is a form of alternative medicine attributed to various Eastern traditions. Colors have different associations in different countries and cultures.

Different colors have been demonstrated to have effects on cognition. For example, researchers at the University of Linz in Austria demonstrated that the color red significantly decreases cognitive functioning in men.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Color" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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