The Secret Language of Color: Science, Nature, History, Culture, Beauty of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet
By Arielle Eckstut and Joann Eckstut
Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers
I enjoy reviewing books having to do with the sciences and the natural world. While The Secret Language of Color at first glance appears to be an art book, it is so much more. Not only does this book mesmerize the reader with spellbinding rainbow hues page after page; it also informs with historical, scientific and even social/political insight into the way nature (and humans) paint the world. Mother-daughter team Joann Eckstut and Arielle Eckstut set out to publish a book to help wed the art and science of color and came up with a masterpiece.
The authors' effort to understand color humbled them.
We thought we were color experts before we wrote this book, but we were brought to our senses by the breadth and depth of the material. Now we like to describe ourselves as color tourists who traveled the world of color -- its jungles, deserts, cities, forests, rural villages, seas, monuments, and museums -- and made it back alive. Along the way we collected our favorite things.
Insights into the mystery of color begin with biology. Eighty percent of higher brain activity (originating in the neocortex) has to do with visual input, according to the Eckstuts. How it works: When light waves reach the retina, two kinds of nerve signals are generated. One type of signal is from rods, photoreceptor cells that perceive low levels of light, and the other is from cones, the photoreceptor cells that perceive color. Then the nerve signals make their way via the optic nerve to the optic chiasm, where the signals split in two and move from each eye to the opposite side of the brain. The signals then converge in the thalamus and are sent to the occipital lobe, which serves as the primary visual cortex. The occipital lobe then begins to analyze the signals to make complex associations, such as when "a large blob of red can become a couch."
Photoreceptor cells have evolved to react to certain light wavelengths. Human vision is trichromatic, meaning there are three types of cones that detect color wavelengths -- red, green and blue. Red cones react to longer wavelengths (700 nanometers); blue, shorter (400 nm); and green, in between, (approximately 510 nm). (If RGB sounds familiar, remember that TV and cameras use the same color arrangement.) There are light waves that are undetectable by the human eye -- ultraviolet, for example. Other creatures in the animal kingdom are able to detect UV waves as well as others we humans are blind to, according to the authors. However, we human beings can detect 10 million colors.
What about black and white? White is perceived when all wavelengths of light are reflected back from an object; black, when an object absorbs all light. In other words, the Eckstuts write, white is the presence of all colors; black the absence of them. While cones are most active in daylight, rods come in handy when it gets dark. Rods help us see in the dark as well as assisting with contrast. If there were no rods, there would be no 50 shades of gray.
So far it sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, it becomes more complicated. The way we perceive light -- from the sun, a fluorescent tube, fire -- is understood as additive color. All of the millions of shades of color are a product of the mixing together of the primary colors. But when light is absorbed by objects, such as the red couch, say the authors, the principle of subtractive color takes over. That is, objects absorb all colors except the color of the object. The red couch absorbs all of the colors of the visible spectrum except for red, which it reflects back to us. While the primary colors of additive color are red, green and blue, the primary colors of subtractive color are cyan, magenta and yellow. The writers do a fabulous job of explaining additive and subtractive colors -- but it took me a a couple of rereads to understand it. (There is more to it when it comes to complementary colors, but I won't go into it here.) Perhaps the most mind-blowing insight here is that all of this is a construction of the brain -- there is no sky blue, ruby red or chartreuse "out there" -- just light waves. As the Eckstuts put it, "All the color that surrounds us is a construction of the brain." I am reminded of the ancient Buddhist koan, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is present to hear it, does it make a sound?"
The history of color is almost as interesting as the science of it. Plato, the writers tell us, thought there was a causal connection between color vision and tears in the eyes; Goethe tried to order the colors of the spectrum into powerful, gentle and radiant. Sir Isaac Newton posited seven spectral colors corresponding to the music scale: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Though modern science has left behind the connection between musical tones and colors, the ROYGBIV acronym is still used to this day, though the selection of these colors was arbitrary; all of the colors are part of a seamless spectrum and violet is not a spectral color but a product of mixing of colors not found next to each other on the spectrum. James Clerk Maxwell, in the latter part of the 19th century, theorized that light consisted of waves that fall on the electromagnetic spectrum, along with UV light, radio waves, X-rays and infrared radiation, among others. Maxwell's insight freed the modern mind from baseless speculation to see color as a construct of the mind that can be measured. The emerging science of color led to understanding why one's ruddy cheeks in sunlight look more sallow in the cool, bluish light of the office. Remember Seinfeld's girlfriend Two Face?
The swatch of fabric, that, under the rug store's fluorescent light, appears to be a perfect match for your couch might not be such a dead ringer in the incandescent light of your living room.