A bit more about the colour red

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Red part 2

Looking back at my recent blog about the colour red I decided that there is so much to say that I would cover a bit more about it here, but I am still only scratching the surface. Hopefully this will be enough for now, but I may cover it again later when I have delved into all the other colours.

We have all been taught that red is a primary colour – along with yellow and blue – and that these colours cannot be made but they can be used in combination to make all the other colours on the colour wheel. As with much we have been taught, this is not quite true.

Actually, you can make red if you mix magenta and yellow together in varying amounts. More magenta than yellow and you get a cool ruby red, more yellow and you will get a warmer tomato red.

I covered some of the science in the last blog but let me break it down a bit more for you. The way we see colour comes from how light bounces off an object or is absorbed or reflected off an object; that is how humans’ eyes work.

You will all have heard of white light which is the mixing together of all the colours in the visible spectrum. This can be seen in a multi-coloured or rainbow coloured child’s windmill. When the windmill is stationery all the individual colours are visible but, if the wind blows fast enough, the moving sails will appear to be white. So, when white light hits a white surface, it appears white to us because no light is being absorbed; all the colours are being reflected equally.

Conversely, a black surface absorbs all colours and doesn’t reflect any colour, so it looks black to us. Interestingly, whilst we artists consider black to be a colour, scientists consider it to be the absence of all colour (presumably because objects that appear black do so because they absorb all wavelengths of light).

Therefore, the physical makeup of an object causes light to be absorbed or reflected. The human eye is seeing the light reflected off an object and our brains process that information into what we recognise as colour. 

Because different objects reflect light in different ways, we perceive an abundance of different colours. Primary, secondary, and tertiary colours when mixed together in various combinations create quaternary and quinary colours giving an almost infinite number of colours.

In addition, all colours can be made into tints and shades. Tints are simply produced by adding white and shades by adding black. And as we all know if you add white to red it will make pink whilst if you add black to red you make a mahogany or deep burgundy colour.

So let me explain why this idea that you can’t make red is actually a myth. Red is what is known as an additive primary colour. This means that if you combine it with another additive colour, blue or green for instance, you can make most of the colours on the visible light spectrum. The concept that red, yellow, and blue are colours which can’t be created because they are primary colours, dates back to Aristotle, the philosopher and scientist of ancient Greece.

However, it gained popularity as an idea in the 19th century due to the German polymath (poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, and philosopher) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe and other German philosophers of the time wrote several books about the psychological effects of the colour of light, based on Isaac Newton’s experiments with prisms. These philosophers decided that red, yellow, and blue were the three colours from which all other colours are made. As I have previously stated you can make red using magenta and yellow, so their assertion was not correct.

I would also like to debunk another myth, namely that red is the warmest colour on the colour wheel. Red and red hues are considered to be warm colours whereas blues and bluesish hues are considered cool colours. But the reason we consider them in this way is because of the emotions we attach to the colours.

As I mentioned in my previous blog on this subject, red is the colour of fire, hot coals and the sunset, all of which give us heat, and so therefore it has become thought of as a warm colour. Water, particularly the sea which can look incredibly inviting when it is a rich turquoise blue for instance, is still cold when we jump into it hence us thinking of blues as cool colours.

So, we have come to associate colours with how we consider them from an emotional standpoint, but the science is quite different. Scientifically, blue wavelengths are short and transmit more energy than those wavelengths transmitted by the red tones.

This is scientifically proven by stars. When they appear to us as blue, they are actually burning hotter than those stars which appear to be red or orange. The same is true of fire and flames; blue flames actually burn hotter than orange or yellow ones. So, from the scientist’s perspective at least, red is “cooler” than blue, which seems like a good place to stop.

As I explained a few weeks ago, I have been looking to expand on the current range of topics I write about each week; it can’t always be about me! As part of this experiment, I aim to write a series of blogs dealing in turn with a different colour. My current plan is to address one colour every month, but I will be interested to hear my readers’ views, whether positive or negative.

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