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Apparent Color of Objects

Color is a property of light that depends on wavelength. When light falls on an object, some of it is absorbed and some is reflected. The apparent color of an opaque object depends on the wavelength of the light that it reflects; e.g., a red object observed in daylight appears red because it reflects only the waves producing red light. The color of a transparent object is determined by the wavelength of the light transmitted by it. An opaque object that reflects all wavelengths appears white; one that absorbs all wavelengths appears black. Black and white are not generally considered true colors; black is said to result from the absence of color, and white from the presence of all colors mixed together.

Additive Colors

Colors whose beams of light in various combinations can produce any of the color sensations are called primary, or spectral, colors. The process of combining these colors is said to be "additive"; i.e., the sensations produced by different wavelengths of light are added together. The additive primaries are red, green, and blue-violet. White can be produced by combining all three primary colors. Any two colors whose light together produces white are called complementary colors, e.g., yellow and blue-violet, or red and blue-green.

Subtractive Colors

When pigments are mixed, the resulting sensations differ from those of the transmitted primary colors. The process in this case is "subtractive," since the pigments subtract or absorb some of the wavelengths of light. Magenta (red-violet), yellow, and cyan (blue-green) are called subtractive primaries, or primary pigments. A mixture of blue and yellow pigments yields green, the only color not absorbed by one pigment or the other. A mixture of the three primary pigments produces black.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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