Color mavens, the universe just keeps on giving. One month into the release of my new book ROY G. BIV: An Exceedingly Surprising Book About Color, I’ve amassed a wealth of intriguing new facts, lore and stories. Here are a few of my best finds.
Exactly how many shades of gray are there? Steve Heller (of Print Daily Heller fame, among many, many other pursuits) interviewed me for The Atlantic, choosing the apt title How Many Shades of Gray Are There, Really? When he posed this question to me during the Q&A, I did a super-fast check of paint manufacturer Benjamin Moore’s site and yielded “a solid 150-plus.” To my surprise (and dee-light), counting grays has proven a heated parlor game among some color aficionados on the Interwebs. Atlantic users marathag and Dewdle noted that the answer depends on both the perceiver and the device transmitting the grays in question. Dewdle writes:
The ubiquitous 8-bit JPEG image format can deliver you 256 shades, but only if your monitor and graphics card can deliver. The same 8-bit JPEG format can deliver millions of colors.
A 16-bit JPEG (or TIFF or other image filer format) can theoretically deliver 32,768 shades of grey. But I know of no device that can show them to you.
Even the best printing press and ink-based process ( such as Gravure) on the optimal paper stock has trouble producing more than ~100 shades of grey.
John_Schubert chimed in with a photographer’s perspective:
Photography greats Ansel Adams and Minor White had 10 shades from pure white to pure black, leaving eight shades of grey in what they called the Zone System. (White’s book Zone System Manual is an exacting prescription of how to make stunning photographs.) The jump from each shade to the next is a doubling or a halving of the exposure. (That makes sense, because exposure and image darkness/lightness have a logarithmic relationship.)
I gave a reading recently at the Wisconsin Book Festival—that’s me pictured at the Madison Public Library’s “Bubbler” room, a stunning, brand-new facility. That event was packed to the gills with fascinating folks who’d done their homework about color. One audience member clued me into an NPR story I’d somehow missed, about the incredible difficulty of creating truly blue fireworks. Audie Cornish got this explanation from John Conkling, technical director of the American Pyrotechnics Association:
“For the color blue, the emitter, the chemical species that produces a blue light up in the sky is a fragile copper compounding, a gas. And then you heat it to very high temperature, and it gives off light. The particular light that copper emits at high temperature is blue. But if your temperature gets too high, you lose the color. You wash out the color. It stops emitting. If the temperature is not high enough, you don’t get any type of intensity, so you need a perfect flame temperature.”
Given our penchant for red-white-and-blue fireworks, this is no minor stumbling block for American pyrotechnics experts. Good thing reds, greens, whites and oranges are relatively simple to crank up into intense pyrotechnic hues.
I also crossed a few burning color-questions off my list while writing a series for Slate’s design blog, the Eye. What’s the official color of New York City’s yellow taxicabs, you ask? That’d be Dupont M6284 or equivalent. (Turn to page 65 of ROY G. BIV for an even deeper backstory of yellow transportation vehicles, “The House of Thurn und Taxis”.)
Why are jeans blue? It’s thanks to a convenient accident of color chemistry. Indigo dye binds externally to fabric threads, versus penetrating the fibers deeply as many dyeing agents do. So indigo literally chips away with every washing, rendering that magical fade and the shrink-to-fit feel we all love in our favorite jeans.
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