COLOUR (Lat. color, connected with celare, to hide, the root meaning, therefore, being that of a covering). The visual apparatus of the eye enables us to distinguish not only differences of form, size and brilliancy in the objects looked upon, but also differences in the character of the light received from them. These latter differences, familiar to us as differences in colour, have their physical origin in the variations in wave-length (or frequency) which may exist in light which is capable of exciting the sensation of vision. From the physical point of view, light of a pure colour, or homogeneous light, means light whose undulations are mathematically of a simple character and which cannot be resolved by a prism into component parts. All the visible pure colours, as thus defined, are to be found in the spectrum, and there is an infinite number of them, corresponding to all the possible variations of wave-length within the limits of the visible spectrum (see Spectroscopy). On this view, there is a strict analogy between variations of colour in light and variations of pitch in sound, but the visible spectrum contains a range of frequency extending over about one octave only, whereas the range of audibility embraces about eleven octaves.
Of all the known colours it might naturally be thought that white is the simplest and purest, and, till Sir Isaac Newton’s time, this was the prevailing opinion. Newton, however, showed that white light could be decomposed by a prism into the spectral colours red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet; the colours appearing in this order and passing gradually into each other without abrupt transitions. White is therefore not a simple colour, but is merely the colour of sunlight, and probably owes its apparently homogeneous character to the fact that it is the average colour of the light which fills the eye when at rest. The colours of the various objects which we see around us are not due (with the exception of self-luminous and fluorescent bodies) to any power possessed by these objects of creating the colours which they exhibit, but merely to the exercise of a selective action on the light of the sun, some of the constituent rays of the white light with which they are illuminated being absorbed, while the rest are reflected or scattered in all directions, or, in the case of transparent bodies, transmitted. White light is thus the basis of all other colours, which are derived from it by the suppression of some one or more of its parts. A red flower, for instance, absorbs the blue and green rays and most of the yellow, while the red rays and usually some yellow are scattered. If a red poppy is illuminated successively by red, yellow, green and blue light it will appear a brilliant red in the red light, yellow in the yellow light, but less brilliant if the red colour is pure; and black in the other colours, the blackness being due to the almost complete absorption of the corresponding colour.
Bodies may be classified as regards colour according to the nature of the action they exert on white light. In the case of ordinary opaque bodies a certain proportion of the incident light is irregularly reflected or scattered from their surfaces. A white object is one which reflects nearly all the light of all colours; a black object absorbs nearly all. A body which reflects only a portion of the light, but which exhibits no predominance in any particular hue, is called grey. A white surface looks grey beside a similar surface more brilliantly illuminated.
The next class is that of most transparent bodies, which owe their colour to the light which is transmitted, either directly through, or reflected back again at the farther surface. A body which transmits all the visible rays equally well is said to be colourless; pure water, for example, is nearly quite colourless, though in large masses it appears bluish-green. A translucent substance is one which partially transmits light. Translucency is due to the light being scattered by minute embedded particles or minute irregularities of structure. Some fibrous specimens of tremolite and gypsum are translucent in the direction of the fibres, and practically opaque in a transverse direction. Coloured transparent objects vary in shade and hue according to their size; thus, a conical glass filled with a red liquid commonly appears yellow at the bottom, varying through orange up to red at the upper part. A coloured powder is usually of a much lighter tint than the substance in bulk, as the light is reflected back after transmission through only a few thin layers. For the same reason the powders of transparent substances are opaque.
Polished bodies, whether opaque or transparent, when illuminated with white light and viewed at the proper angle, reflect the incident light regularly and appear white, without showing much of their distinctive colours.
Some bodies reflect light of one colour and transmit that of another; such bodies nearly always possess the properties of selective or metallic reflection and anomalous dispersion. Most of the coal-tar dyes belong to this category. Solid eosin, for example, reflects a yellowish-green and transmits a red light. Gold appears yellow under ordinary circumstances, but if the light is reflected many times from the surface it appears a ruby colour. On the other hand, a powerful beam of light transmitted through a thin gold-leaf appears green.
Some solutions exhibit the curious phenomenon of dichromatism (from δι-, double, and χρῶμα, colour), that is, they appear of one colour when viewed in strata of moderate thickness, but of a different colour in greater thicknesses (see Absorption of Light).
The blue colour of the sky (q.v.) has been explained by Lord Rayleigh as due to the scattering of light by small suspended particles and air molecules, which is most effective in the case of the shorter waves (blue). J. Tyndall produced similar effects in the laboratory. The green colour of sea-water near the shore is also due to a scattering of light.
The colours of bodies which are gradually heated to white incandescence occur in the order—red, orange, yellow, white. This is because the longer waves of red light are first emitted, then the yellow as well, so that orange results, then so much green that the total effect is yellow, and lastly all the colours, compounding to produce white. Fluorescent bodies have the power of converting light of one colour into that of another (see Fluorescence).
Besides the foregoing kinds of colorization, a body may exhibit, under certain circumstances, a colouring due to some special physical conditions rather than to the specific properties of the material; such as the colour of a white object when illuminated by light of some particular colour; the colours seen in a film of oil on water or in mother-of-pearl, or soap-bubbles, due to interference (q.v.); the colours seen through the eyelashes or through a thin handkerchief held up to the light, due to diffraction (q.v.); and the colours caused by ordinary refraction, as in the rainbow, double refraction and polarization (qq.v.).
Composition of Colours.—It has been already pointed out that white light is a combination of all the colours in the spectrum. This was shown by Newton, who recombined the spectral colours and produced white. Newton also remarks that if a froth be made on the surface of water thickened a little with soap, and examined closely, it will be seen to be coloured with all the colours of the spectrum, but at a little distance it looks white owing to the combined effect on the eye of all the colours.
The question of the composition of colours is largely a physiological one, since it is possible, by mixing colours, say red and yellow, to produce a new colour, orange, which appears identical with the pure orange of the spectrum, but is physically quite different, since it can be resolved by a prism into red and yellow again. There is no doubt that the sensation of colour-vision is threefold, in the sense that any colour can be produced by the combination, in proper proportions, of three standard colours. The question then arises, what are the three primary colours? Sir David Brewster considered that they were red, yellow and blue; and this view has been commonly held by painters and others, since all the known brilliant hues can be derived from the admixture of red, yellow and blue pigments. For instance, vermilion and chrome yellow will give an orange, chrome yellow and ultramarine a green, and vermilion and ultramarine a purple mixture. But if we superpose the pure spectral colours on a screen, the resulting colours are quite