Making Colors
Visible light is light that can be perceived by the human eye. When you look at the visible light of the sun, it appears to be colorless, which we call white. And although we can see this light, white is not considered to be part of the visible spectrum (Figure 2). This is because white light is not the light of a single color, or frequency. Instead, it is made up of many color frequencies. When sunlight passes through a glass of water to land on a wall, we see a rainbow on the wall. This would not happen unless white light were a mixture of all of the colors of the visible spectrum. Isaac Newton was the first person to demonstrate this. Newton passed sunlight through a glass prism to separate the colors into a rainbow spectrum. He then passed sunlight through a second glass prism and combined the two rainbows. The combination produced white light. This proved conclusively that white light is a mixture of colors, or a mixture of light of different frequencies. The combination of every color in the visible spectrum produces a light that is colorless, or white.

  • Colors by Addition - You can do a similar experiment with three flashlights and three different colors of cellophane -- red, green and blue (commonly referred to as RGB). Cover one flashlight with one to two layers of red cellophane and fasten the cellophane with a rubber band (do not use too many layers or you will block the light from the flashlight). Cover another flashlight with blue cellophane and a third flashlight with green cellophane. Go into a darkened room, turn the flashlights on and shine them against a wall so that the beams overlap, as shown in Figure 3. Where red and blue light overlap, you will see magenta. Where red and green light overlap, you will see yellow. Where green and blue light overlap, you will see cyan. You will notice that white light can be made by various combinations, such as yellow with blue, magenta with green, cyan with red, and by mixing all of the colors together.

Figure 3

By adding various combinations of red, green and blue light, you can make all the colors of the visible spectrum. This is how computer monitors (RGB monitors) produce colors.

  • Colors by Subtraction - Another way to make colors is to absorb some of the frequencies of light, and thus remove them from the white light combination. The absorbed colors are the ones you will not see -- you see only the colors that come bouncing back to your eye. This is what happens with paints and dyes. The paint or dye molecules absorb specific frequencies and bounce back, or reflect, other frequencies to your eye. The reflected frequency (or frequencies) are what you see as the color of the object. For example, the leaves of green plants contain a pigment called chlorophyll, which absorbs the blue and red colors of the spectrum and reflects the green.

Here is an absorption experiment that you can try at home: Take a banana and the blue cellophane-covered flashlight you made earlier. Go into a dark room, and shine the blue light on the banana. What color do you think it should be? What color is it? If you shine blue light on a yellow banana, the yellow should absorb the blue frequency; and, because the room is dark, there is no yellow light reflected back to your eye. Therefore, the banana appears black.

So, if you had three paints or pigments in magenta, cyan and yellow, and you drew three overlapping circles with those colors, as shown in Figure 4, you would see that where you have combined magenta with yellow, the result is red. Mixing cyan with yellow produces green, and mixing cyan with magenta creates blue. Black is the special case in which all of the colors are absorbed. You can make black by combining yellow with blue, cyan with red or magenta with green. These particular combinations ensure that no frequencies of visible light can bounce back to your eyes.

Figure 4

But the color scheme demonstrated in Figure 4 appears to go against what your art teacher told you about mixing colors, right? If you mix yellow and blue crayons, you get green, not black. This is because artificial pigments, such as crayons, are not perfect absorbers -- they do not absorb all colors except one. A "yellow" crayon can absorb blue and violet while reflecting red, orange and green. A "blue" crayon can absorb red, orange and yellow while reflecting blue, violet and green. So when you combine the two crayons, all of the colors are absorbed except for green. Therefore, you see the mixture as green, instead of the black demonstrated in Figure 4.

So there are two basic ways by which we can see colors. Either an object can directly emit light waves in the frequency of the observed color, or an object can absorb all other frequencies, reflecting back to your eye only the light wave, or combination of light waves, that appears as the observed color. For example, to see a yellow object, either the object is directly emitting light waves in the yellow frequency, or it is absorbing the blue part of the spectrum and reflecting the red and green parts back to your eye, which perceives the combined frequencies as yellow.