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A History Of Colour


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Presented at Ignite London on March 2, 2010 as part of the Global Ignite Week.

Published in: Design
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  • One day about two years ago, I was sitting at home at my desk, staring mindlessly out the window, when a question popped into my head: 'How do people think about colour?' What I was really interested in was an explanation of how one colour relates to another. I wanted to know if scientists and artists had some sort of all-encompassing system of colour?

    And so, hopelessly bent on getting to the bottom of this, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading all sorts of fascinating accounts from the last three millennia of people attempting to answer the same question that had just popped into my head.

    The journey began with Pythagoras way back in the sixth century B.C. Among his many accomplishments, Pythagorus was the first person to discover that musical notes could be translated into a mathematical seven-note scale. Bizarrely, he also believed that the orbits of the planets and colour spectrum both corresponded to the same mathematical proportions as music, resulting in a grand cosmic symmetry (an idea known as 'the music of the spheres').

    But Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. took a more straightforward approach. Living at a time when people held a very cyclical worldview, Aristotle placed a selection of 7 primary colours into a linear sequence. He ordered them according to when he observed each colour appearing naturally throughout the day, beginning with the light of day and ending with the black of night.

    Aristotle's influence held sway all the way until Sir Isaac Newton developed the colour wheel in 1666. Having studied the scientific properties of light, Newton arranged the colours on the wheel according to their wavelength, understanding that colours opposing one another on the wheel are appealing to the eye when used in conjunction.

    While Newton's wheel accurately explained the relationship between pure colours, that's only part of the picture. In the 1700s, Moses Harris expanded upon Newton's ideas by creating a shaded colour wheel. If Newton's wheel was a one-dimensional representation of colour, Harris's shaded wheel introduced a second dimension.

    In the late 18th century, scientists began experimenting with three dimensional models of colour. One example, by physicist Johann Heinrich Lamber, consisted of a pyramid that arranged colour squares over a series of several platforms.

    But the real breakthrough occurred in 1810 when Philipp Runge portrayed colour as a three-dimensional sphere. Unlike those before him, he recognised that colour consists of three distinct properties which could be seamlessly visualised through a single object.

    This three-dimensional representation was brought to maturity in 1978 by none other than a software engineer. Pixar co-founder Alvy Ray Smith, working for Xerox at the time on one of the first computer graphics applications, formalised the HSV colour model consisting of three distinct values: hue, saturation, and brightness (sometimes called value).

    The HSV model is best visualised in the form of a cone. Imagine a colour wheel around the circular rim of a cone, with colours fading to white as they approach the centre, and fading to black as they move toward the base of the cone.

    While it's true that there are other colour models, namely RGB (used by computers to mix light) and CMYK (used by printers to combine pigments). these are both technical models, and impossible for mere humans to wrap our minds around. HSV, on the other hand, is a mental model that matches how we think (or at least should think) about colour.

    In fact, HSV is consistent with our everyday vocabulary. For instance, when we use terms like 'darker' or 'lighter,' we're referring to brightness. When we talk about a colour being 'rich' or 'washed out,' we mean saturation. And when we talk about colours such as 'orange,' 'purple,' and 'green,' what we're really referring to is hue.

    So the next time you open Photoshop, paint your flat, our even pick out what your going to wear tomorrow, remember hue, saturation, brightness, and the 3,000 years of progress those values represent.

    And with that brief history, I'll leave you with a quote from the 19th century colour researcher Edwin D. Babbitt: 'We shall do well, then, to consider this potential and beautiful principle of light and its component colours, for the more deeply we penetrate into its inner laws, the more will it present itself as a marvellous storehouse of power to vitalise, heal, refine, and delight mankind.'
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