As I have become older, I have begun to think that the problem of color is primarily a linguistic one.

Color a problem? It seems like one of the clearest, most obvious of phenomena. We all see it: At least, we all stop at stop signs. We know red.

Or think we do.

Artists know about color, certainly. They know the primary colors of red, blue and yellow, and the secondary and tertiary colors they can mix.

Physicists know about color, too. They know about wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum and how one tiny segment of this huge megaband of waves can be perceived visually, from the longer wavelengths of red to the shorter, buzzier ones of blue.

But these two knowledges don’t agree. They are relativity and quantum mechanics.

Further, a printer will tell you that the primary colors are not red, blue and yellow, but cyan, magenta and yellow. And a television technician will tell you that the primary colors are blue, green and red.

What gives?

Perceptual psychologists and neuroscientists are still working on the problem of color. The first and most significant problem is that, realistically speaking, color does not exist. That is, what we see when we look at a tomato or an apple, that sensuous red we ascribe to the object, does not have an objective reality. It is a subjective additive that our brains give it so we may make sense of what we see. In evolutionary terms, we use color to know when fruit is ripe.

(Interestingly, it seems as if evolution continues to work in the human species and, as most people now buy food from markets rather than foraging for them, we may be losing our ability to distinguish reds and greens. The incidence of red-green color blindness is growing, and eventually, we may all share it.)

A simple view of how color vision works would seem to make sense of it all. In our eyes, on our retinas, are light-sensitive cells — we call them cones — that are alternately triggered by red, green and blue wavelengths of light, and those signals are transmitted to our brains, where they are synthesized into little color pictures of what we are looking at.

Unfortunately, this isn’t an accurate version of what happens.

First problem is that the cones are not discretely sensitive to red, green and blue. There is considerable overlap, as seen in this graph.

Second, the color we perceive is not always related to wavelength. Consider yellow. There is, of course, a yellow wavelength of light, and we see that wavelength because yellow light tickles both the green and red sensors in our eyes, and we blend them together in our brain to make yellow. The problem is that if something has no yellow wavelengths at all, but manages to tickle both the red and green sensors, we still see yellow. No yellow light at all, but still, we see yellow.

And consider magenta. It is a color that does not exist in the natural spectrum. There is no magenta wavelength of light. But if an object reflects both red and blue wavelengths of light, we are rewarded by the mental sensation of the hue we call magenta. No wavelength at all, but still, there is color.

So, color cannot simply be a mental recording of wavelength. Most of the colors we perceive are mixtures of other wavelengths according us the pleasant and often useful sensation of color, but without any strict accordance to the laws of physics.

What is more, current research on vision tells us that what we synthesize in our brains is not a twining of the three signals from the three types of cone, but rather a group of oppositions worked out by the brain.

Along with cones in the retina are the rods, which are tasked with the registration of light and dark — commonly called black and white. The electrical signals that are sent to our brain to be analyzed are first, the opposition of lights and darks, second the opposition of blues and yellows — which are the colors most other mammals work with — and thirdly, the addition we got from our primate ancestors, the ability to analyze the opposition of red and green.

So, as we now think it to be, the signals sent to our brains give us black-white, blue-yellow, and red-green.

Perhaps, then, what we call primary colors should be black, white, blue, yellow, red and green. That would make sense.

They are all simple names for colors that have clear identities. Everyone knows what green is, or blue.

Or do they? Here’s where the linguistic part comes in.

In English, for instance, there are other color names that have a similar direct and clear determination of hue. Orange and pink, for instance. Brown and purple. Simple names for hues we recognize has having distinct identities. And just because we speak English, we take our name-markers for a simple one-to-one description of reality.

But hold on: Other languages organize colors differently.

Consider Russian, where what we call light blue has one name and what we call simply a darker shade of blue, has another name. Siniy and Goluboy. The distinction is the same as we make between red and pink. We hold them to be distinct colors, not merely shades of the same color. In Russian, that distinction is accorded to the blues.

Or take Japanese, where all of blues and greens are covered by the single word, ai. There is the ai of the sky and the ai of the trees below it. It is all ai.

There are languages in which the surface reflectivity of an object changes its color name. We have that in English, where a metallic version of grey is called silver, and a version of yellow that maintains specular reflections is called gold.

“In certain languages there are names for colors that are descriptive in terms of surface, as a wet black or a dry black,” says painter Henry Leo Schoebel, whose paintings are all about the sheen of their surface.

“There is a big difference between a box merely painted black with glossy house paint, and a Japanese lacquer box. The lacquer is a blacker black.”

There are academic arguments going on all the time over whether the names of colors are universal or are culturally distinct. I’m not getting into that, except to say that both seem to be true. But colors are universal in the sense that everyone knows red is red and would not be confused with, say, blue. But when we say red, we don’t always mean the same thing.

“If one says ‘red’ and there are 50 people listening, it can be expected that there will be 50 different reds in their minds,” painter and color theorist Josef Albers once wrote.

The Zuni language classes yellow and orange together, which means that once they have coded it in language, say, as if to tell a friend what they have seen, the friend decodes the word into his trove of experience and comes up with something quite different. It may be orange; it may be yellow. That is a distinction that our language makes, but his does not.

The same as Russian separates siniy and goluboy and ours does not.

The tomato is a whole lot more close to the orange end of the red spectrum and the stop sign is closer to the magenta end of the red spectrum. Yet we call both red, and if we tell a friend about something we have seen and say it is red, the friend will decode the term the same inexact way the Zuni friend decodes orange-yellow.

And outside the limits of language, color is something we know from its embodiment, not from its abstraction. That is why so many secondary names for tints and hues are actually the names of those items who bear those colors, such as lavender, fuchsia, turquoise, teal, olive, coral, puce, salmon.

And it’s why painters cannot use tubes of paint called “red,” “green,” or “blue,” but instead rely on vermilion, phalo green or ultramarine. Pigments are not abstractions, but physical substances, and they differ in effect, hue and their properties of admixture. Mix blue and yellow to get green? Which blue? Which yellow?

This physicality of pigment also means that an artist’s colors don’t behave according to a neat color theory. Each pigment has its own idiosyncrasies and personality.

“For reds, I use acra violet, cadmium-red light, red oxide,” painter Anne Coe says. “Phthalo blue, ultramarine and cobalt for blues, cadmium-yellow light and medium and then yellow ocher.

“You do have to have a violet. It’s hard to mix a violet.

“And you can’t put black into a cadmium-yellow light: It turns green.”

So much for color theory.

In the end, colors are as individual as people, and any color theory is a compromise, fudging this or that for coherence. There is no theoretical certainty in color, and in the end, we have to admit that each of dozens — even thousands — of colors has its distinct identity and each pigment its distinct properties.

And so, I have given up on color theory.


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