EPISODE 01.02 // What is Color? (Intro to Color Theory Pt. 1)

It's the second podcast! And I'm already doing a two parter! It was inevitable, so it's probably a good thing I got it out of the way. I love Color Theory so much, that I just couldn't help myself.


What is the color blue? And where does it come from?

Hello again, world! My name is Jon Seal, graphic designer and writer from Baton Rouge, LA, and I would like to welcome you back to Art(ish) Theory, a podcast devoted to the intersection of art theory and the world around us.

If you are new to this series, don’t worry, so am I! This is only our second episode, last week being our first. So we’re going to be taking this journey together into the weird realm of discussing art in an audio format. Should go smoother on my end and hopefully that means this episode will be even better than the first.

Last week we launched this show by asking the question “What is Art?”, and we explored how the words and language we use to describe art can be used to describe pretty much everything around us—from the natural to the manufactured. We also began the process of changing our thought about art theory and what topics we can discuss from a narrow view to more broad one.

At the end of the show last week, I teased that we would be diving head first today into design theory—which sounds complicated but it’s really not. Design theory is basically the language we use to discuss art…Basically. That’s actually an extreme oversimplification, but it would take an entire episode to really flesh out what Design theory is and is not, and I’m convinced it would be boring. We might do an episode on all of Design Theory in the future, but right now… just think of it as a collection of terms we use to discuss art.

And, like I also said last week, we will begin our discussion of design theory with my absolute favorite topic—and the one most people are familiar with already—color. It’s a pretty big topic, so we’re going to cover the introduction of color in this week’s episode as well as next week’s. Today, though, I want to focus specifically on the question, “**what** is color?”

I know, my second podcast, my second existential question. But bare with me! This question about color isn’t nearly as confusing as last week’s “what is art”… and, I think, it’s much more interesting.

But before we try to answer that question, we need to get into the right headspace, because there is a major problem we have when we discuss color—just how much of it we see on an average day. That might sound controversial, but we do live in a world oversaturated with color. And that really creates a problem when we try to discuss what color is. You see, we have stores that sell shirts in every shade imaginable, we have boxes of crayons with over a hundred unique colors, and we are glued to tiny screens all day that let us play bright, colorful games whenever we want. And I just named three things of the hundreds that bombard us with color throughout the day!

I’m not saying these things are bad things! I’d much rather live in a world full of color than one without any. I’m just making the observation that useable color is so widely available to us in the modern world, that we can kind of take it for granted sometimes. And we really shouldn’t.

That’s because, for thousands of years, humanity’s ability to understand color and what it is, was pretty limited. And it wasn’t because ancient humans were stupid—far from it!—but because color was just, kind of, rare… I mean, not rare as in you could live your whole life without seeing thousands and thousands of colors, but I mean rare as in, you just didn't see that many different kinds of colors in one place all that often. Usually, the biggest thing to determine which colors you would see on any given day was the change of seasons, with brilliant displays of color for a few weeks in Spring and Autumn but muddied greens and browns in Summer with a mix of grays in Winter.

This is probably why in the Biblical book of Genesis, we read the story of Noah’s Ark and find that when God promises to never flood the whole Earth again, he seals that promise with a rainbow. This comes at the end of a very difficult story, and out of all the possible ways God could have given this promise, He decides to light up the sky with a colorful display. God makes a contract with Noah and then signs it with color. The lack of color diversity in the ancient world also helps explain another famous story that we read later on in the book of Genesis where we read how Joseph—the youngest and favorite child of Israel—was given a coat of many colors by his father, and his older brothers hated him for it, really hated him—enough to sell Joseph into slavery and fake his death. Color was rare, and the rarest colors were reserved for those things deemed important.

And that kind of sounds weird to us, doesn't it? I mean,  we live in a world of bubble gum pink clothes, turquoise walls, and purple candy, but I promise I’m not just making this up! Colors on each end of the spectrum in the natural world—especially bright, bright reds, soft pinks, brilliant blues, and pretty much every shade of purple you can imagine—are all very, very rare colors. They’re pretty much only found in flowers, and relatively few flowers at that. And yet, there were those times on any given day, just before a sunrise or just after a sunset, that the sky would burst from horizon to horizon with every color imaginable—even if only for a brief minute or two. It's no wonder natural phenomena like the rainbow have sparked the imagination of humanity throughout history.

We need to know the secrets of the gods and how they created such beautiful colors.

Before we could harness color, though, we needed to know what color was. Enter Aristotle, an ancient Greek philosopher whose theories of the natural world would shape humanity’s understanding of the Universe for thousands of years. Back then, philosophy and science were one and the same, and all the big ideas came from people like Aristotle who learned how to see the world through logical reasoning and not experimentation. And it turns out that logical reasoning can get you to some really brilliant and useful conclusions.

Aristotle reached his conclusions about color like he did with his conclusions on everything else: he started with something obvious and worked to the less obvious. In the case of color, Aristotle started with the obvious observation that colors in the day are different than colors at night. And from there, it’s pretty easy to see where he went and why. During the day, everything is bright. The sun is bright, whites are brilliant, and the world seems bathed in a tint of yellow. At night, though, especially on moonless nights, things are dark. The sky is dark. Blacks disappear into their surroundings and things seem covered in a shade of deep blue. On a nice day with just a few clouds in the sky, you can actually watch the clouds go from white at midday to yellow in the afternoon, then to orange and red as the sun sets, sometimes turning purple and green after the sun has dipped below the horizon, and finally the clouds fade into the dark blue of the night sky with the last bit of dim sunlight.

To Aristotle, it was obvious that this meant that color was something intrinsic to the objects a light was shining on. To him, everything in the Universe was a mix of dark material and bright material. Light came down from the heavens as pure, bright, and white. As it interacted with the world, the color of the light would change depending on how dark something was. In Aristotle’s view, if something is the color red, white light was hitting something more bright than dark. The object’s brightness—mixed with a bit of dark—changes the color of light from white to red and reflects the new, red light back into the world. The same process happens to something green, except white light is being changed by an object that is more dark than bright, and reflecting green light back into the world. This explanation for where color comes from matches up so well with most known color phenomena that Aristotle’s theory stuck.

But there was a problem, one that even Aristotle admitted. You see, Aristotle wasn’t just the first person we know of to describe the nature of color, but he was also the first one to describe the mathematics of a rainbow. He noticed that a rainbow’s appearance, size and shape was determined by the position of a person in relationship to the sun. From this, Aristotle concluded that a rainbow was created by the sun’s light bouncing off of clouds in the sky, and he was right! That’s exactly what a rainbow is! And that’s also the problem. If color simply comes from light interacting with objects and being changed by how bright or dark an object is, what causes all the different colors of a rainbow? In Aristotle’s understanding of color, there should only be one or two colors. At most three. So why is a rainbow more than three colors? More importantly, why does every rainbow have the same colors?

It was a pretty big problem for Aristotle’s theory, and one that went unanswered for nearly two millennia.*


That’s when Isaac Newton pops on the scene—yes, the guy of the three laws of motion fame who supposedly got hit on the head by a falling apple and came up with the theory of gravity. That guy. Well, Isaac Newton was into a lot of other stuff, including the nature of light and color. In 1666, Newton wrote a ground breaking book called “Opticks: Or, a Treatise of the Reflexions, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light”… and with a name that long, you know it’s going to rub some people the wrong way!


The big break through for color, described in this book, was in Newton’s experiment with a beam of white light and a prism. Shining the light into one side of the prism, the light came out the other end as a rainbow. Now, this wasn’t such a big deal. People had known that shining a light into a prism created a kind of rainbow for centuries. But the world was still running on Aristotle’s assumptions about light and color. The running theory at the time was that the light itself was being changed by the prism somehow. The light goes in white and comes out red, yellow, orange, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Where Newton turned the world’s understanding of light upside down was when he put the rainbow back together into another beam of white light using two more prisms.

The implication was as straightforward as it was startling. Light didn’t change color depending on how it interacted with darkness. Light wasn’t changing or creating color at all. Light itself was color!

And for artists, this was especially confusing and frustrating. For thousands of years, artists had been developing color theory along side science, and it seemed to be working pretty much as Aristotle had predicted. Of course, there were variations and schools of thought, but overall the idea that you could get any color you wanted if you just mixed the right blend of bright and dark colors lead to the idea of primary colors, a very useful and intrinsic part of art which is still taught and used to this day.

But Newton’s discovery turned all of this on its head. There was nothing intrinsically bright about red or intrinsically dark about green. The idea of mixing colors to change light was simply false. Light wasn’t being changed by a color, light was giving color. Light itself was color’s source.

Like many ground breaking moments in science, the impact of this discovery has reverberated through history. We live in a post-Newton world and what we know about light now, Newton could only imagine. We know that light acts as both a particle and a wave. We know there are waves of light we can’t see—like ultraviolet and infrared. We understand that light is energy and we use it through solar panels to power our homes. And on top of all this, because of Newton, we know that light itself is color. The two can’t be separated.

The impacts this has had on art are hard to quantify. To some, Newton’s idea was exciting, heralding a new era of exploration and expansion in the study of color… to many others, though, this discovery was useless at best and threatening at worst. No one could really see it at the time, but the world of art was about to part ways with science in a big, big way. For better or worse, the relationship between these two great fields of study—once united by the theories of color—was about to change forever.

Thank you so much for listening to today’s podcast! Again, this was just part one in our introduction to color theory, but for my second podcast ever, I think it went pretty well. It was definitely a bit smoother this time around, especially from my end. Like last time, there are a number of things I had cut from this episode for the sake of time—but it has all been given a home at our website, artishtheory.com. This week’s extra information goes a bit more into depth about Newton’s theory and the science of light. There’s actually a surprising overlap between how Newton understood color and Aristotle’s teaching on color, and it has to do with music. I really wanted to get into that, but it just would have been a rabbit trail. So if you’d like to know more or see what got cut, please visit our website. There you can find not just the bits from the cutting room floor, but also more information about today’s topic as well as educational material for the home or classroom. Again, our website is artishtheory.com.

If you appreciate access to quality, free education, then please consider supporting me at Patreon where you can pledge money on a per episode basis, for which I will reward you for your kindness in a number of fun, interesting ways. You can find me at patreon.com/artishtheory.

Come back to us next week for the continuation of our intro to color theory, where we will be discussing the fallout of Newton’s discovery as well as discuss the development of the ideas of primary and secondary colors as well and the color wheel. Should be another interesting episode.

Thank’s again for listening, and until then, stay creative!


* Jon misspoke here and was supposed to that Aristotle's theories lasted for almost two millennia, but he said three in the podcast. He addresses this mistake in the next podcast.