Science of Color

It’s time to mothball some of our traditional color theories, as science shows that they are wrong. Here’s a look at some newer approaches – and some discoveries when looking back to ancient times.

Here is a talk by Stephen Palmer getting some interesting results when testing what colors people like – and why. One tidbit: Artists have different color taste (liking strong colors more)… but change their preference quickly.
He mentions how older theories about color are wrong. Though some contradictions remain: Much of our likes and dislikes are learned from our environment… yet babies seem to have the same preferences.

He also finds strong cultural differences (who would have thought Japanese don’t like red?) and that goes deeper than one would expect.
A radiolab series of podcasts about color dives into that, starting with how color perception works, and why some people can simply see more different colors.
Especially fascinating is their feature on the color blue, and how some colors just weren’t even known in ancient history… at least they weren’t ever mentioned. I have some quote in an entry about color perception – which also links the video of the Himba-tribe, who can’t visually distinguish some colors because they have no names for them.

From personal experience I suspect that the researchers ignore brightness too much – maybe because we live in a world centered around print and screens. I have a slight form of synesthesia, and once listed the numbers I experience as colors. For me there the brightness plays a big role. The sky is super bright compared to other blue objects. I think it’s natural to see and name it as a very different color.

And maybe people in 2000 years might wonder about color words we use today. “White” as skin-color for example is rather strange – no painter would pick white to paint Caucasians. Same for so-called yellow, red or black skin. There used to be very different distinctions. In the Minoan culture (roughly 3500 years ago) the male skin is usually red in paintings and female skin is white. Which was in line with Egyptian traditions. And for metals, they painted gold as yellow, silver as blue and bronze as red.

Minoan Fresco - Palace of Knossos

Minoan Fresco (1700-1450 BCE) – Dolphin, Palace of Knossos, Crete
Lots of blue here, but somehow in the … beaked dolphins?

In the comments on the podcasts are some more interesting counter points:

  • In ancient times wine used to be thicker, and was thinned 20 times for consumption. So it would actually look black.
  • The bible does have some mentions of blue, called Tekhelet – which isn’t pointing to all things blue, but specific items (like the sapphires with that name).
  • People who live in the sun a long time will get “yellow” coronas and lose the ability to see purple and blue hues. (That’s why old ladies try to get the yellow out of their hair and then go too far in the other direction and dye their hair blue or purple. To their eyes their hair looks yellow even when white). This might have happened to scholars in ancient desert or Mediterranean cultures (e.g. Greece). The authors are most likely an adult and after years of exposure got a yellow tint in their corneas and thus a filter that blocks blues and purples.