The Science of Aesthetics: Pink Is Only In Your Mind

We live in a world where new tech is constantly shaping the face of art and design, but sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the hype. Over the next few weeks, instead of focusing on the tech of design, we’re going back to the basics to explore the technique of design. 

First up, we’ll explore one of the most powerful tools in the designer’s toolbox: Color.

In the camera trade specifically, you tend to hear a lot about things like sensor sizes, recording formats, and image resolutions (4K anyone?). While these things are important, they often take attention away from far more important conversations about the basic principles of design and their effects on the stories and images we create. Similar statements could be made about virtually any art-form. For the next few weeks, we’ll be tackling some of the basic principles of aesthetics that can be applied to film, photography, and web design by examining the science behind the art.

First up, we’ll be talking about color – one of the most basic and most important elements of design.

The Dynamic of Perception

To put it mildly, color plays an absolutely essential role in the way we perceive the world around us. Humans have innate, visceral reactions to the use of different colors in different contexts, and an object’s color makes it almost impossible to look at that object without feeling something. This fact, of course, influences a very large number of art-forms – from artwork hanging in a museum to web design or video on a digital screen. So, as I said before, we’re going to stop and look at a bit of the science that goes into this. Who doesn’t like science, right?

To begin, color psychology basically stems from the way humans perceive the world around them. I spend quite a bit of my time designing images from behind a camera, so I’m constantly evaluating the color of light and the feelings it evokes in my audience. Blue, for example, is commonly associated with sadness, dreariness, or moonlight. Red, on the other hand, is often associated with anger, energy, or urgency. Also, colors are perceived by our brains to have a certain weight on-screen. For instance, red is almost always a “heavier” color than blue – our eyes are naturally drawn to it over most of the other colors in the spectrum. Likewise, darker colors often have a greater visual weight than their lighter shades, and how these colors relate to each other is often crucial to the message we’re conveying through our design – whether it’s intended or not!

Revisiting An Old Friend

To start, let’s talk about a guy you probably met in preschool – his name is ROY G. BIV. The astute reader may recall that this is actually an acronym for the colors of the rainbow – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, and Violet. Well, it turns out that this simple childhood lesson is very important – it describes (in simplified terms) the visible spectrum of light, which is the basis for our entire concept of color!

For reference, here’s a (more grown-up) visual representation:

Light-Spectrum

Why is this relevant? Well, here’s where the science comes in (or more specifically, Physics)!

Visible light contains all of the above colors (each color is a product of an individual wavelength, or the frequency of each lightwave), and thus light looks white when all of these colors are added together (more on that in a sec). When we look at an object, we’re actually not seeing the object itself, per se, but the reflection of that object – or rather the reflected wavelengths of light that the object doesn’t absorb.

Color-Reflection-Diagram

A red apple, for example, absorbs all wavelengths of light other than red, thus the red wavelengths are the only ones that bounce off and reach our eyes. Make sense?

Additive and Subtractive Systems

I mentioned that light is an “Additive” system. This means that primary colors (Red, Yellow, and Blue) are added together to make other colors, and when all colors combine equally they make white (told you we’d get back here!).  Thus, Red and Blue make Magenta, Blue and Green make Cyan, and so forth. Here’s another handy diagram for reference:

The-Additive-System

Did anybody notice something odd about those visual aids up there? If you said that they’re missing a few colors (like pink or brown), you’d be right – but you’d also be wrong! Stick with me here – we’re about to leave the land of Physics for a slight detour into the realm of Biology (but we’ll be right back).

Pink Is Only In Your Mind

To understand how humans perceive color, we need to know a bit about how the human eye works. When one of the reflected wavelengths we talked about hits a person’s eye, the brain uses two types of receptors – rods and cones – to decode the visual information into signals the brain can understand. Rods are responsible for our sensitivity to the brightness and darkness (or Luma value) of light, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.

As you may have guessed, Cones are responsible for the reception and interpretation of color, and the eye contains not one, but three different kinds – each one responsible for receiving and interpreting a different section of the color spectrum (Reds, Greens, or Blues). When a wavelength of light hits the eye, each cone fires and sends the appropriate signal to the brain to produce the color associated with that wavelength of light.

So, for light in the red part of the spectrum, the red cones will fire at full strength while the blue and green cones fire very little, if at all. As you might have surmised, when light that’s not red, green, or blue hits the eye, two cones might fire to varying degrees – combining the primary colors to make secondary ones such as magenta, yellow, and cyan (an Additive system!).

Still, we haven’t answered our original question yet. We perceive pink, brown, and a few other colors to exist even though they’re nowhere to be found on the visible color spectrum. So what’s going on?

Well, we said that different wavelengths of light cause different cones to fire to differing degrees. Pink, brown, and the other “phantom” colors occur, then, when all three of the cones fire at once, thus creating not primary or secondary colors (those present in ROYGBIV), but in-between, pseudo-colors that don’t technically exist in reality, but only in our minds. For good measure, here’s one more illustration to drive the point home:

Pink-Is-Only-In-Your-Mind

Wrapping It All Up

So, even though pink isn’t a real color, we still PERCEIVE that it exists, and that’s just the point! Art doesn’t simply consist of what’s on a canvas or digital screen. Art’s true essence exists through the things it evokes within an audience’s mind – whether those things are intentionally put there or not!

I’ll leave you to mull over the implications of what we’ve learned. Next time we’ll be discussing Harmonies and Discordants, and how our perception changes further when we combine different colors in different ways.

Sound off in the comments if you have anything to add, and keep an eye on us – the next part of the series will be along soon!

2 thoughts on “The Science of Aesthetics: Pink Is Only In Your Mind

  1. Hey Jon, great article. You really have a passion for both teaching and writing.
    If I may, I would suggest one consideration: All color is only in your mind, not just tertiary colors like pink.
    What defines red as red? Can one person’s red be different from someone else’s red?
    The only determined characteristic of color is the precise wavelength(s) of the light. Who’s to say that your brain and my brain process the wavelength of 475nm (blue light) in the same way?

    1. Oh, I absolutely agree! In fact, I think it’s physically impossible for all of us to have the exact same concept of red, blue, or any other color. However, to use your example, while we all experience blue light in a different way, it’s only our reactions that are different – the wavelength of 475nm is the same no matter who’s looking at it, so everyone still considers that color to be “blue”, regardless of whether or not those two blues perceived in the same way.

      I suppose the only exception to this would be people with color-blindness or some other type of vision-related disorder, because several colors look the same to them. So, yes! I do believe you’re right, and that is a distinction worth making!

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