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Color Light Physics And Graphic Design Philosophy Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 1766 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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My area of study is Graphic Design, and in design color is essential in fact is one of the key factors in it. Without color it would be extremely difficult to get our message across of course typography plays a big role as well.

We have Newton’s Color Theory to thank for that, which states that objects appear to be certain colors because they absorb and reflect different amounts and wavelengths of light. He used prisms to prove that white light is actually made up of waves of different colors. At the time it was a very radical and controversial idea for the 1660s. Most scientists thought that prisms somehow added color to light (Swenson, 2012).

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Most artists were fascinated by Newton’s clear demonstration that light was responsible for color. His most useful idea for artists was his arrangement of colors around the circumference of a circle; which as now known as the color wheel, and allowed the painters and artists primary colors; red, yellow, blue to be arranged opposite of their complementary colors; red as opposite of green, as a way of denoting that each complementary color would enhance the other’s (Douma, 2012).

In conclusion, physical science has had a great impact in the graphic design field, with Sir Isaac Newton Color Theory, the Color Spectrum, the Color Wheel, and of course light. It’s amazing how many designers don’t even realize where color came from.


“In nature, light creates the color. In the picture, color creates the light (Hofmann, 2012)”. As German artist Hans Hofmann once quoted. Color is all around us; we see the grass and its green, a stop sign is red, we look up at the sky and we see blue, and flowers come in all sorts of different colors.

Objects get their color from light shining on them. By absorbing certain wavelengths of light and reflect others. Light is a fundamental element. In order for us to see anything at all, we need light, otherwise it would be dark. In order to see an object, you have to shine a light on it, or it must produce light itself. An object that absorbs all wavelengths will appear black since no light gets reflected. That’s why black objects get warm to the touch on a sunny day in fact. All that absorbed light gets converted to heat (Johnson, 2007).

Light and color begins with Isaac Newton experimenting as a way of understanding more about the physics of light itself. He published his experiments and the resulting theory of color in 1672 (Douma, 2012).

Newton’s Theory of Color states that objects appear to be certain colors because they absorb and reflect different amounts and wavelengths of light. Newton used prisms to prove that white light is actually made up of waves of different colors. This became a very controversial idea for the 1660s. Since most scientists believed that prisms in one way or another added color to light. Newton used two prisms to prove that the color was in the light, not in the prism. He placed the first prism in a beam of sunlight and projected the rainbow spectrum; with the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet on a wall 22 feet away. To further prove that those colors were components of the light, he inserted another prism into the path of the projected spectrum and adjusted the beam of light so that it shone white again (Swenson, 2012).

Newton discovered that light operates a lot like waves, bending around objects, the same way water flows around them. When light strikes a prism, the different waves of color are bent to different angles, which create the rainbow spectrum. Red light bends the least and violet light bends the most (Swenson, 2012).

Vision is sensitive to light which occupies a very small region of the electromagnetic spectrum; known as visible light. Visible light corresponds to a wavelength that ranges from 400 to 700 nanometers (nm) and a color range of violet through red. The human eye is not able to see radiation with wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. The visible colors from shortest to longest wavelength are: violet, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. Ultraviolet radiation has a shorter wavelength than the visible violet light. Infrared radiation has a longer wavelength than visible red light. The white light is a mixture of the colors of the visible spectrum. Black is a total absence of light. Earth’s most important energy source is the Sun. Sunlight consists of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. (Madigan, 2011).

When you see a spectrum it’s like when you see a rainbow. The spectrum is divided into seven separate bands. Isaac Newton being the first person to define this; some people believe that he included the color indigo just to make seven steps to match the number of notes in a major musical scale. These are the wavelengths for each of the colors (Johansson, 2010):

Violet Light

The visible violet light has a wavelength of about 400 nm. Within the visible wavelength spectrum, violet and blue wavelengths are scattered more efficiently than other wavelengths. The sky looks blue, not violet; because our eyes are more sensitive to blue light (Madigan, 2011).

Indigo Light

The visible indigo light has a wavelength of about 445 nm (Madigan, 2011).

Blue Light

The visible blue light has a wavelength of about 475 nm. Because the blue wavelengths are shorter in the visible spectrum, they are scattered more efficiently by the molecules in the atmosphere, therefore it will cause the sky to appear blue (Madigan, 2011).

Green Light

The visible green light has a wavelength of about 510 nm. Grass appears green because all the colors in the visible part of the spectrum are absorbed into the grass except green. Green is reflected, therefore grass appears green (Madigan, 2011).

Yellow Light

The visible yellow light has a wavelength of about 570 nm (Madigan, 2011).

Orange Light

The visible orange light has a wavelength of about 590 nm (Madigan, 2011).

Red Light

The visible red light has a wavelength of about 650 nm. At sunrise and sunset, red or orange colors are present because the wavelengths for these colors are less efficiently scattered by the atmosphere than the shorter wavelength colors (Madigan, 2011).

There are also many wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum the human eye cannot see since they are too short; this is the Ultraviolet light. This kind of light causes sunburns; our skin is sensitive to this kind of light. Without sunblock protection, our skin absorbs this energy and it can make our skin change color or it can break down the cells and cause other damage (Madigan, 2011).

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Energy whose wavelength is too long to see is called Infrared light. We can feel the energy of these wavelengths sitting in front of a campfire or when we get close to a stove burner. Very long wavelengths of infrared light radiate heat to outer space. If this energy did not escape to space, the solar energy that the Earth absorbs would continue to heat the Earth (Madigan, 2011).

Isaac Newton also invented the color wheel, by taking the colors refracted by the prism and placing them in a segmented circle that was based on the mathematical calculations of their wavelengths. This provided artists with a chart demonstrating that the primary colors red, yellow, and blue appear opposite of the secondary colors with the most contrasting wavelength red to green, yellow to violet, and blue to orange. These colors provide the greatest optical contrast when placed next to each other (Swenson, 2012). The color wheel is useful for showing how the colors relate to each other and how you can create new colors by mixing two or more colors (Johansson, 2010).

The color wheel also demonstrates how colors could be created by combining the primary colors in different dimensions. Colors that appear near each other are considered analogous and are always balanced when used together. Crossing the color wheel to choose contrasting or complementary colors creates visual drama. Designers and artists create visual effects that can attract or repel us. Lighting designers use colored light to change the look of a space and create more interesting shadows.

Primary Colors

There are three primary colors that forms the base of the color wheel; red, blue and yellow. These colors cannot be created by the combination of other colors. Although, these three colors can be mixed to create different colors (Jones, 2012).

Secondary Colors

Once the three primary colors are mixed the color wheel will add the second layer of colors; green, orange and purple. In order to get green, you have to mix blue and yellow. Combining red and yellow will produce orange. And blue and red will make purple (Jones, 2012).

Tertiary Colors

The tertiary, also known as a third level color is created by mixing a primary and a secondary color. This adds six additional colors to the color wheel; yellow-orange, red-orange, red-purple, blue-purple, blue-green and yellow-green (Jones, 2012).

Graphic designers use the color wheel to choose colors based on their analogous, or their complementary qualities. Analogous colors lie next to one another while complementary colors are any two colors that are directly opposite each other on the wheel. Colors are also divided into warm and cool categories. Warm colors are placed on the right side of the color wheel, from red to yellow-green; cool colors are those on the left side, from reddish purple to green. Neutral colors are white, black, gray, and brown (Jones, 2012).


Original Diagram sketch of Newton’s prism experiment (Newton)

Prism Experiment (Newton, Prism Experiment)

Newton’s Color Wheel (Newton, Color Wheel)

Basic Color Wheel (Newton, Basic Color Wheel)


Because of Sir Isaac Newton, we now understand that all color comes from light reflection. We are able to use color to help us communicate, and get our message across as graphic designers. Color is an interesting element of graphic design because it can be applied to any element, changing it dramatically. It can be used to make an image stand out, to show different text effects on a website, and create an emotion. Graphic designers today are able to combine their experience with color with an understanding of the color theory.


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