• Steven Heller

The Daily Heller: Is Color an Illusion?

There are dozens of books analyzing and explaining color science (a few new ones were published this year) for designers and artists. There are many tools to measure, define and identify color, too—including color wheels and color swatches. Color phenomena and color appreciation express who we are and what message is communicated to whom. What could be more iconic and commercially profitable than Pantone, for instance? The introduction of a new color is like discovering a new planet (or at least giving it a name).


In my college years, however, I had a strange aversion to color primers, most notably Basic Color: An Interpretation of the Ostwald Color System by Egbert Jacobson (Paul Theobald, 1948). Let me explain. I was assigned to read this book, among other more formal textbooks, in my Psychology 1 class at NYU. What I signed up for, believing it was supposed to be a class focusing (voyeuristically, for me) on neurosis, psychosis and madness of various kinds, drove me mad because I wanted to get to the hardcore clinical stuff, not color theory or the meaning of color on our individual or mass psychology. At least not the way it was taught at NYU.


Although it sounds fascinating now, when I was an aspiring writer-artist, I worked primarily in black and white, anyway. Now I appreciate color. I know why color is so important to behavioral and cognitive studies too. And this is why, in part, I am particularly pleased to recommend What is Color? 50 Questions and Answers on the Science of Color by Arielle Eckstut and Joann Ecksut (Abrams Books). This mother and daughter team have devoted their professional lives to the physics of light, the part of the brain that processes it and how color intersects and defines everything that is human—and much that is transmuted into art.



The first quote in the book, "Color is a pigment of our imagination" (Mark Rea), provides all you need to know about the tenor and voice of this assortment of 50 essential questions. It is not necessary to read them in sequence but you will want to read all of them over time. If only to answer the tough stuff—"What are Spectral Colors?" "How Does Light Turn Into Color?" "What are Cones?" "What is Trichromacy?" "What is Metamerism?"—and the all-important: What is the difference between RGB and CYMK? I'm still confused about why cyan is cyan.


Since color plays an essential part of our lives, one of my favorite questions is "How is Color Related to Light?" This of course brings us to the idea that "for most human existence, the sun has been the source of light that makes our world colorful." It seems obvious, even to me, but it is not. If you're wondering why I have not answered any of these questions for you, the answer is simple. No spoilers here!


This book is enjoyably edifying because of the way the authors answer their own questions. What's more, if I were to tell you, I'd botch the answers. One of my botches would surely be the question, "What is ROYGBIV?" A Newtonian logic whereby Newtown separated the colored light that he saw exit a prism into seven colors. Given my deficient education, I always thought four-color process was the epitome of color separation and standardization.


This is not a book for beginners but it is a book to begin with if you want to learn more about color. I've already learned a lot. In fact, I've read all of the 50 questions with the exception of what I'm sure is the doubtlessly insightful "What is Black?" I've always loved black. For me (solipsistically speaking) black lights up my world … kind of.



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