What Is the Definition of Color in Art?

Abstract of the color paint

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Color is the element of art that is produced when light, striking an object, is reflected back to the eye: that's the objective definition. But in art design, color has a slew of attributes which are primarily subjective. Those include characteristics such as harmony — when two or more colors are brought together and produce a satisfying effective response; and temperature — a blue is considered warm or cool depending on whether it leans towards purple or green and a red whether it leans towards yellow or blue. 

Subjectively, then, color is a sensation, a human reaction to a hue arising in part from the optic nerve, and in part from education and exposure to color, and perhaps in the largest part, simply from the human senses.

Early History

The earliest documented theory of color is from the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BCE), who suggested that all colors came from white and black. He also believed that four basic colors represent elements of the world: red (fire), blue (air), green (water), and gray (earth). It was the British physicist and mathematician Isaac Newton (1642–1727) who figured out that clear light was made up of seven visible colors: what we call ROYGBIV of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet). 

Colors today are defined by three measurable attributes: hue, value, and chroma or intensity. Those attributes were scientifically operationalized by the Peter Mark Roget of color, Boston artist and teacher Albert Henry Munson (1858–1918).  

The Science of Color

Munson attended the Julien Academy in Paris and won a scholarship to Rome. He held exhibits in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago, and taught drawing and painting at the Massachusetts School of Art between 1881 to 1918. As early as 1879, he was having conversations in Venice with the design theorist Denman Waldo Ross about developing a "systematic color scheme for painters, so as to determine mentally on some sequence before laying the palette." 

Munson eventually devised a scientific system for classifying all colors with standard terminology. In 1905, he published "A Color Notation," in which he scientifically defined colors, precisely defining hue, value, and chroma, something that scholars and painters from Aristotle to da Vinci had longed for. 

Munson's operationalized attributes are:

  • Hue: the color itself, the distinctive quality by which one can distinguish one color from another, e.g., red, blue, green, blue. 
  • Value: the brightness of the hue, the quality by which one distinguishes a light color from a dark one, in the range from white to black.
  • Chroma or intensity: the quality that distinguishes a strong color from a weak one, the departure of a color sensation from that of white or gray, the intensity of a color hue. 

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