Visible Light, Additive Coloring, Subtractive Coloring, Printing and Pointilism

Posted by PITHOCRATES - August 28th, 2013

Technology 101

Our Eyes see Shades of Gray with Rods and Color with Cones

If you have colorful flower gardens all around your home and go out at night you won’t see much.  Only shades of gray.  You’ll see none of the vibrant colors of your flowers.  The moonlight, streetlights, the neighbor’s security lights, your landscaping lights, etc., will provide enough lighting so you can see your flowers.  But you won’t be able to see their colors well.  If at all.

If you go out with the bright afternoon sun shining down it’s a different story.  You can see the color.  Rich, vibrant color.  Because of the cones in your eyes.  Which can see color.  As long as it is bright enough.  Unlike the rods in your eyes.  Which work well in low light levels.  Letting you see shades of gray in low light levels.  But saturate at high light levels.  Which is where the cones take over.

Light is electromagnetic radiation.  And the key to color is the wavelength.  What is a wavelength?  Think of a guitar.  If you pluck a thick string it vibrates at one frequency.  If you pluck a thin string it vibrates at a higher frequency.  The thick string will move back and forth at a greater distance (and a slower speed) as it vibrates than the thin string.  So the thick string has a longer wavelength than the thin string.  This is a crude explanation.  But the takeaway from this is this.  As frequency decreases wavelength increases.  As frequency increases wavelength decreases.

Different Wavelengths of Light have Unique Colors and are a Small Portion of the Electromagnetic Spectrum

Light is electromagnetic radiation.  Different wavelengths of light have unique colors and are a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.  If you ever conducted an experiment in grade school where you passed a white light through a prism (or if you saw the cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon) you saw this.  White light enters the prism and a ‘rainbow’ of colors exits the prism.  Violet on the bottom.  And red at the top.  This is the visible light spectrum.  From violet (the smallest wavelength) to blue to green to yellow to orange to red (the largest wavelength).  Wavelengths smaller than violet are ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays.  Wavelengths larger than red are infrared, microwave, FM, AM and long radio waves.

In low light levels rods can make out things in shades of gray.  But cannot distinguish color.  As the light intensity increases the rods saturate and lose their ability to see.  While at the same time the cones begin to see.  There are three types of rods in the eye.  Those that see long wavelengths (around the color red).  Those that see medium wavelengths (around the color green).  And those that see short wavelengths (around the color blue).  These are the primary colors of light.  Red, green and blue.  If you add any combinations of these light wavelengths together you can get any color in the visible spectrum.  The cones will ‘see’ a color based on the combination of wavelengths they sense.  If the cones sense only red and green the eye will see yellow.  If the cones sense all wavelengths equally the eye will see white.

If you’ve ever bought a color inkjet cartridge, though, you may be saying this isn’t right.  Inkjet cartridge packaging has three dots of color on them.  None of them green.  There’re red, blue and yellow.  Not red, blue and green.  Green isn’t a primary color.  Yellow is.  And that is true.  When it comes to painting.  Or printing.  Or dyeing.  That uses subtractive coloring.  Where we use dyes, inks and pigments to absorb light wavelengths.  A blue paint, for example, will absorb wavelengths of all colors but blue.  So when you look at something dyed, printed or painted blue only the blue wavelength of the source light (such as the sun) reflects onto the cones in your eye.  The other wavelengths from the source light get absorbed in the dyes, inks and pigments.  And don’t reflect onto the cones in your eyes.

Our Brain blends Wavelengths of Color together into a Continuous Color Image

Artists mix paints together on a palette.  Each individual paint absorbs a set of wavelengths.  When mixed together they absorb different wavelengths.  Allowing the artist to create a large palette of colors.  The artist applies these colors to a canvas to produce a beautiful work of art.  But not all artists.  Georges Seurat didn’t mix colors together for his masterpiece.  A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.  The subject of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George.  Where George explains the technique he used.  Pointilism.

Instead of mixing paints together to make colors Seurat applied these paints unmixed onto the canvas.  And let the eye mix them together.  The individual pigments absorbed all wavelengths but the desired color.  As these different wavelengths of different intensities fell onto the cones the brain blended these dots of color together.  In the musical George (Mandy Patinkin in the original Broadway cast available on DVD) shows someone what the painting looks like up close.  A bunch of dots of different colors.  And then moves backward with him.  As they do the dots blend together into a rich palette of colors.  Producing a beautiful painting.

In 4-color printing we use a combination of these techniques.  Where they reproduce a color photograph by blending the three primary colors (red, blue and yellow) and black.  The original photograph is broken down into its primary colors.  Before digital printing this was done with photography and color filters.  One for each primary color.  They then made screens for each color.  To vary the intensity of each color they broke solid colors into dots.  The amount of white paper showing between the dots of ink lightened the shade of the color.  The paper runs through a press that adds each of the primary colors onto the image.  Overlapping colors to produce different colors.  Subtracting wavelengths to produce a color image.  With the brain blending these colors together to reproduce the original color photograph.  (They added black to make a cleaner image than they could by mixing the inks together to make black.)

Video displays are more like pointilism.  Televisions in the days of picture tubes had three electron guns repeatedly scanning the phosphorus coating on the inside of the picture tube.  Each gun hit one of three different colors of phosphorus.  Red, blue and green.  These dots of phosphorus glowed at different intensities.  Each pixel on the screen has one dot of each phosphorus color.  The three colors blend together into one color pixel.  We use different technology today to produce the same wavelengths of red, blue and green.  That produce a color image.  That falls on the cones in our eyes.  With our brain blending these pixels of color together into a continuous image.

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