Colour Theory

A little intro …

Colour fascinates me. Some colours bring me scents, some sound like chimes, some give me a sensation on my fingertips or tongue. This doesn’t happen to me all the time, but it does happen often enough and sometimes strongly enough that I’m forced to really take in a colour or colour combination. I organize my clothes by type and then colour. I have colour-coded files, journals and email. If I want to remember something I attach a colour to it mentally and when I think of the colour name I’ll remember it. I don’t like to just look at a colour, I like to feel it, revel in it.

When I began to make my own jewellery, I learned the basics from co-worker, video tutorials, and websites, but it wasn’t until I picked up It’s All About the Beads! by Barbara Case that I thought about design. Her gorgeous pieces opened up my mind to what a piece of jewellery is really about. Expression. Communication. Art. And Colour informs all of these – it sets the mood and tone for a piece. The colour can determine how heavy or light it feels, how formal or informal, how whimsical or serious.

It helps to have a little understanding of colour and how different hues relate to each other. I’m no colour professor, but I’ll try to take you through some of the basics.

 

What is colour?

We now take for granted that colour has its source in light, however, until the 17th century that was not a proven fact. As far back as the Indus Valley civilization, colour was associated with natural elements. In the Upanishads, colour is ascribed to fire (red), water (white), and land (black), with all other colours being a combination of these three. Aristotle’s association of colours with the elements (fire, water, earth and air) was the standard in colour theory for almost 2,000 years until Sir Isaac Newton displaced it. In 1666, Newton was able to scientifically demonstrate that when a beam of white light is passed through a prism, it splits into the hues of the rainbow, and further, when the rainbow is passed through a second prism, it becomes a beam of white light again.

The colours we know as red, blue, green, etc. derive from the spectrum of light. The visible spectrum is the part of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum (the range of all possible EM radiation frequencies) that is visible to the human eye. Our eyes will typically respond to wavelengths from 380 to 750 nm. Colour perception, or the sensation of colour, include the colours of the rainbow that everyone is familiar with: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. However, not all of the colours our eyes and brain can recognize are contained in the spectrum (e. g. pink and magenta, which are made by mixing wavelengths). There are also colours that lie outside our visible range, in the Infrared and ultraviolet ranges, which are perceived by many birds, animals, and insects. Infrared wavelengths are longer than visible red, as they get longer they become microwave and radio waves. At the other end of the visible spectrum, ultraviolet wavelengths are shorter than visible violet, and beyond UV they shorten to become x-ray and gamma rays.

Our eyes perceive these visible wavelengths according to their frequencies, which our brain relates as various hues or colours. The colour of an object we see is not necessarily the colour an object “is” but is really based on the frequencies that are reflected from the object. So, if we are looking at a red box, it means that all other light frequencies have been absorbed except red frequencies – these are being reflected back to our eyes. In the case of a light source, our brain will relate colour to whatever frequencies the source is emitting (that can be perceived by our eyes).

Only 1/6 of the total eye is visible – the whole eye is a spherical organ about 1 inch (3 cm) in diameter which sits in the skull and is protected by a socket of bone. In the eyeball there is a lens that helps to focus objects and gets thicker when you look at something close up and gets thinner as you look into the distance. The coloured area of your eye, the iris, is a muscle that changes the size of your pupil to control the amount of light entering your eye. The retina, at the back of the eye, contains light sensitive cells called rods and cones which are important to colour perception. The rods of the eye help us to see in darkness and tell the difference between black, white and shades of grey. There are 3 types of cones in the eye that distinguish red, blue and green light.

Information from the eyes is sent via the optic nerves and tracts to the visual cortex, located in the occipital lobe of the brain. (The occipital lobe of the brain is at the back of your head, which may be why we sometimes see stars when we fall and hit the back of our heads.) The information is interpreted here by the brain. The human eye can distinguish approximately 10 million colours.

 

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