Color terms

Jim McKenney
Sun, 19 Sep 2004 19:43:11 PDT
I've been enjoying this discussion. My grasp of color isn't all that
sophisticated, but I've come a long way. Here are some thoughts, somewhat
random, on this topic. 

I'm surprised that no has yet mentioned the two basic theories of color:
the subtractive theory and the additive theory. The subtractive theory is
the one which pertains to the observed behavior of pigments - it's the
theory painters (and gardeners such as Gertrude Jekyll) used to describe
color. To this day, when gardeners talk about color, the talk tends to be
colored (how's that for an appropriate metaphor!) by generations of
experience in manipulating color in terms of the subtractive theory. 

Why is it called the subtractive theory? I found this fascinating once I
finally understood it: mix any two pigments and the resulting color will be
duller, less bright, less intense, than either of the two original colors. 

The other theory, the additive theory, gets its name from the observation
of what happens when light passes through a prism: seemingly colorless
light breaks up into a spectrum of color. Reverse the process (i.e. combine
the colors correctly) and you get colorless light again: added rather than
lessened  brightness, intensity. 

If there is a physicist out there reading this, don't laugh, jump in and
give us better information!

It has already been pointed out that the primary color names are different
in the two systems. Until I tried to calibrate the color on my monitor, I
thought that cyan would be blue. 

There is another basic aspect of color which also has not been mentioned:
color itself exists only in the mind of the beholder. Yes, objects have
properties which cause wave lengths of light to be absorbed or not; and as
a result, we perceive color. But the existence of color implies the
existence of something to perceive the color: color does not have an
independent existence. 

Color names based on fruit and flower colors baffle me. Take cerise for
example. Is it really as simple as cherry colored? What kind of cherries?
Cherries come in pale yellowish white, pink (more about that one later),
various reds - mostly on the blue side of red but sometimes near scarlet on
the orange side of the color wheel, maroon, dark blackish reds and so on.
Which one of these is cerise? 

The same can be said for plum colored: plums come in a variety of colors. 

I'm infuriated by those who use apricot as a color description. The
apricots I know are a soft yellow orange. Yet color descriptions sometimes
seem to use apricot to describe a sort of pinkish orange. 

Purple and violet: to me, Clematis x jackmanii is purple, Viola odorata
Queen Charlotte is violet. Contrary to what most catalogs will lead you to
believe, there are no purple tree peonies. But what is that color? It's a
sort of ox blood red with some blue in it. Or the color of dried globe
amaranth with some extra blue?

That mauve should be so elusive is not surprising: I'll bet that not too
many more people have seen the mallow in question (Althaea officinalis)
than have tasted the confection made from them. That the color is phoney
may surprise some people, but then so too are the marshmallows you buy in
the store these days. 

And then there is pink, a very confused color concept if I'm to believe
what my eyes seem to be telling me when I see the full regalia of those who
ride to the hounds. 

Puce: no wonder they said it in French! What a disgusting idea. The current
Asiatica catalog describes the flower color of Podophyllum difforme as
"dried blood" - that's puce, isn't it?

As to flesh: well, it was obviously Caucasian flesh which was described in
an earlier post on this topic. Should we be surprised that others have
other ideas about this?

One other thing which intrigues me: my right and left eye do not perceive
color the same way. One eye emphasizes the warm side of the spectrum, the
other the cool side. 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where, to paraphrase an old
saying, it was a brave man who first ate a real marshmallow. 


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