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Colour Design: Theories and Applications

Colour Design: Theories and Applications

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Colour Design: Theories and Applications

1,441 pages
61 hours
Jun 8, 2017


Colour Design: Theories and Applications, Second Edition, provides information on a broad spectrum of colour subjects written by seasoned industry professionals and academics. It is a multidisciplinary book that addresses the use of colour across a range of industries, with a particular focus on textile colouration.

Part One deals with the human visual system, colour perception and colour psychology, while Part Two focuses on the practical application of colour in design, including specifically in textiles and fashion. Part Three covers cultural and historical aspects of colour, as well as recent developments, addressing areas such as dyes and pigments, architecture, colour theory, virtual reality games, colour printing, website development, and sustainability. This revised, expanded, and updated edition reflects recent technological developments, and new industry priorities.

Bringing together the science of colouration and the more artistic elements of design, this book supports students, academics, and industry professionals in developing a deep knowledge of colour use. It will also be an important reference for those involved in textile dyeing, design and manufacture.

  • Provides a comprehensive review of the issues surrounding the use of color in textiles
  • Discusses the application of color across a wide range of industries, supporting interdisciplinary knowledge and research
  • Offers a revised, expanded, and updated look that reflects the rise of new technology and industry priorities
Jun 8, 2017

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Colour Design - Elsevier Science



What is colour?

A.R. Hanson    National Physical Laboratory, London, United Kingdom


Colour is incredible! It is an important sense providing us with essential information about our world, but it is not simple. This chapter describes how we resolve light the way we do, through an attempt to create a space to contain all the colours that exist. Human colour vision is a sensation of three dimensions so the space will necessarily comprise three dimensions, however, as there are many uses of colour; several such spaces have been developed.


Spectrum; Hue; Colour spaces; Subtractive colour mixing; Additive colour mixing.

1.1 Introduction: what is colour?

Turning to dictionaries to answer this question, the reader finds that in general colour is defined by negatives: ‘the visual property of light which is not related to lightness, saturation, texture, glossiness or translucency’. Such technical definitions underplay the enormously positive value colour brings our species and the impact it has upon us. From a survival point of view, it is the primary sense in distinguishing ripe from unripe fruit and safe from unsafe meat; it informs us of the quality of beer or honey and tells us how strong a cup of coffee is or the quality of tomato puree. It adds richness and immediacy to complex visual information, for example in maps and warning signals. It identifies football teams, snooker balls and political parties. It affects mood and performance, dominates fashion aesthetics, whilst its symbolism permeates fine art, national flags and corporate branding. For human beings as sensory, intellectual animals with a high proportion of information about world surrounding us channelled through vision, colour is a highly significant component of our everyday life.

One of the most curious things about colour is its intangible nature. It is a human sense that is very hard to replicate in mathematical software or robotic hardware and research into its complicated functionality is as active today as it has ever been. The colour we see is to some extent time-averaged: the different persistences of various phosphors in fluorescent lighting means that the colour of their illumination changes imperceptibly cyclically 100 times a second. If we stare at a static scene for about 20 seconds we see after-images. As we age, the lens in our eye, our window upon the world, yellows and (although we tend not to notice this) blues dull. Spatially, colours influence each other through the process called simultaneous contrast (Chevreul and Birren, 1981). The impressionist artist Van Gogh appreciated this in his vibrant paintings, often juxtaposing complementary colours (such as blue against yellow and green against red) for enhanced effect. For various reasons, even simple colour tests will generate wide ranges of responses from the same observer at different times, and between different observers. We see colour differently according to illumination type and level. It is not unusual for a person’s left and right eye to see colour slightly differently. Taking these factors into account, one starts to realise that any model of human colour vision is going to be very complicated. At best we can create one which will work under a very limited set of conditions. Designing a machine to predict when a printed photograph matches the original scene is a very tall order. In fact photographic film manufacturers have long known that beyond colour fidelity, their customers have a more sales-worthy colour preference. For example, there are distinct ways in which Japanese and European photographic film stock, respectively, represent the colour of grass.

Such is the complexity and influence of colour that some designers shy from its use (Batchelor, 2000).

To see colour involves several components—a source, a detector and usually a medium. The light source may be coloured, the eye provides discriminatory resolution over the range of visible light and the medium alters the light source colour through its optical properties (reflection, refraction, scattering, absorption, fluorescence and so on). Altering any of these components, and indeed the viewing conditions, can lead to a change in the relative and absolute colours in a scene. When a light source illuminating a scene is changed, the human visual system largely adapts, seemingly referencing colours to the whitest visible entity in the scene, in the same way that the white point may be adjusted for a digital camera or image. The human visual system performs many intriguing operations, several of which lead to odd visual effects such as simultaneous contrast mentioned previously. These are the basis of several fascinating optical illusions such as that shown in Fig. 1.1, but present considerable challenges to someone wishing to organise colour, build a machine to measure it or construct a numerical model comprehensively describing its perception.

Fig. 1.1 Optical illusion demonstrating simultaneous contrast. There are only three colours in this image: black, yellow and green.

Nassau (2001) comprehensively collates the various causes of colour in media, ranging from the chemical properties of atoms and molecules to physical optics. For example, he explains that the sky is blue (and the setting sun red) because atmospheric molecules scatter light of different wavelengths by enormously different amounts—violet light is scattered about 16 times more than red light.

A scientific definition of colour is that it is a variation in the spectral power distribution of light as discriminated by the human visual system. It is qualitative perception of light.

In the rest of this chapter we shall begin with a description of light, and how the eye has a limited range of its detection. We shall see how three sensor species within human eyes resolve the visible spectrum into three dimensions of colour, and how the nature of these three dimensions changes as neural signals move from retina to brain. Many systems are used to specify colour, each with a rationale based on the understanding of colour at the time of derivation or a particular set of observations or practicalities such as the implementation of colour mixing systems.

1.2 Visible light

Natural light illuminating human activity on earth has a range limited by the light source, and by our eyes.

Light is the carriage of energy by distortions of an electromagnetic field. The field does not require a physical medium to support it—light can travel through a vacuum, as it does when moving from the sun to the earth. Light has electrical and magnetic properties, refracting and diffracting like a wave, so is called an electromagnetic wave.

It is useful to understand a little of the wave properties of light. Light can be described as having a wavelength, a frequency and a speed. Ocean waves might typically hit a beach with a frequency of 10 every minute, have a wavelength (distance between waves) of about 25 m and travel at roughly 4 m/s (about 9 mph). In a vacuum, light of all wavelengths (or frequencies) travel at the same speed (about 3 thousand million metres per second or 186 thousand miles per hour) and a typical (actually bluish-green) visible wavelength of light would be about 530 millionths of a millimetre, normally described as 530 nm, written as 530 nm. This same blue–green light has a frequency of about 566 million million oscillations per second. From now on, this chapter will describe light in terms of wavelength (expressed in nm) only. White light is a mixture of different wavelengths. In normal dispersive materials, such as a glass and water, different wavelengths of light travel at slightly different speeds (blue light travels slower than red light) causing the splitting of spectra by prisms and rain through the process of refraction. The resulting continuum of wavelengths of visible light appears to us as different spectral colours as exhibited in a rainbow.

Three properties constrain the range of solar light illuminating us. The first is the relative spectral power distribution of the sun, which depends on its temperature. Planck’s Law can be applied to calculate—to a good approximation—the amount of light present at each wavelength, giving appreciable fluxes from the ultraviolet (UV) to the mid-infrared. Wien’s Law may be used to find the peak wavelength as a function of the surface temperature of the sun which, depending on the assumption of temperature, ranges from 480 to 520 nm. Secondly, fine gaps in the solar spectrum called the Fraunhofer lines are caused by gases within the sun absorbing very narrow ranges of optical wavelengths. Finally the nature of the earth’s atmosphere and other surfaces (clouds, oceans, grasslands, etc.) reflect and absorb light by varying amounts over the spectrum. Atmospheric ozone absorbs a proportion of UV radiation whilst the so-called ‘greenhouse gases’ (principally water and carbon dioxide) absorb some visible and infrared wavelengths. As a result of these various factors, the final spectrum of daylight reaching us at sea level has a somewhat complicated spectral distribution.

Eye physiology reduces the range of visible wavelengths perceived by humans further. Vision compromises many operational parameters including spectral resolution, spatial resolution (acuity), field of view, dynamic range, light receptor cell size, retinal packing density, eye size, stereo vision coverage and low light sensitivity, and different species vary in their resolution of these components. Whilst there is likely to be one species or another that scores higher than humans on each one of these points (e.g. many insects and birds, can see UV), there are justifications for each compromise. In the case of UV, the lens of the human eye absorbs UV radiation, causing it to yellow (reducing our response to blue light), or even turn opaque in later life. This filtering out of UV (which increases significantly in the first few months of life) reduces damage to the internal structures of the eye.

1.3 Organising colours

Ten Million! That is the number of different colours that we can distinguish according to one reliable estimate (Judd and Wyszecki, 1975) ‘colours!’ exclaimed Hunt (1998) in his seminal book on colour measurement—but how to arrange them? Organising colours optimally eases three distinct activities: their selection, communication and classification. However, no single colour order system satisfies the requirements of all users, which has led to many specialist-preferred solutions being developed historically. The development of these solutions continues today with the luxury of ever-more sophisticated calculation and research display technologies. In the widening visual science of colour appearance, these enable us to investigate how colours influence each other and how different presentation media (printed, self-luminous displays, etc.) affect our colour perception.

If we ask a group of children to organise a collection of differently coloured swatches, they will soon become confused. They will probably have been taught an ordering system comprising the sequence of rainbow colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet), which omits many colours such as flesh tones, white, black, purple, brown and pink. It is a challenge to organise lighter and darker or differently colourful versions of these key colour terms on a single colour line. It turns out that to create a system containing all colours we must use three dimensions, so that each colour is specified by a unique triplet of values. We shall see later in this chapter how this results from human physiology.

In an introduction to organising colour, it is appropriate to mention a key study into the language of colour by Berlin and Kay (1992) who surveyed basic colour terms in no less than 98 languages, placing them in order of commonality of use (with black and white being most popular, followed by red, then green, yellow, blue and so on). This study showed a considerable commonality in approaches to colour terminology (such as the more frequent use of words relating to black, white and red than any other colours in any given language) throughout human history and geography.

So, deepest violet, the lowest wavelength we can see has a wavelength of about 380 nm whilst the outermost visible reds of a rainbow have a wavelength of about 780 nm. Newton (1730) famously stated ‘For the rays, to speak properly, are not coloured. In them is nothing else than a certain power and disposition to stir up a sensation of this or that colour’, meaning that it is human perception of them that ascribes a property of colour. For example, electromagnetic radiation of wavelength 530 nm appears to those of us with normal human colour vision to be ‘green’.

1.3.1 Colour spectrum and Newton’s seven

When developing an understanding of differing colours, the set of seven ‘rainbow’ colours described by Newton (1730) turns out to be a sound scientific starting place to begin an ordering system.

The debate concerning Newton’s identification of seven colours in the visible spectrum continues today. Newton himself admitted that he could perceive only six hues, relying on his assistant's better performance to identify seven. Some believe that the number seven was ‘required’ to fit into a wider grand theory of everything, with seven tones on a diatonic musical scale, seven known planets, seven regular solids, etc. Others contest that it related to a relationship between musical concords and colours proposed by Aristotle. There is confusion on the implementation of Newton’s seven terms, specifically on what is meant by indigo and blue. This distinction may stem from languages richer than current English. Greek culture elevates the colour sky-blue to more significant status than what we might call pure-blue. There is some cultural difference in definition of colour names here as many English people assume sky-blue to be a rather pale baby-blue, as the English sky commonly is, whilst the Mediterranean term for sky-blue denotes a stronger shade, closer to cerulean. Similarly, there are two fundamental Russian language terms pronounced ‘goluboy’ and ‘siniy’ meaning light blue and dark blue, respectively, with the former having a higher spiritual or royal status akin to ‘blue blood’. At the risk of propagating more speculation, it may be suggested that the naming was more observational than philosophical. Perhaps a modern translation of Newton’s seven colours would be: red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue and violet.

1.3.2 Three-dimensional colour: the evidence

Since all colours cannot be organised into a single continuously developing line it is evident that one dimension is insufficient. For humans the number of dimensions needed to contain all perceivable colours is three, with the most convincing evidence coming from the fact that there are three ‘primary’ colours. A set of primary colours is understood as having two idealised properties:

- Each primary colour cannot be made from any other primary colours.

- The set of primary colours can be used to make all colours that exist.

This is where aspiring colourists’ confusion begins since there are more than one set of primary colours and, on critical examination, they fail to create all colours that exist.

Early years education does much to confuse us about how colour works because it introduces us to an unfulfilling primary set that is hard to explain or use convincingly. We are taught that the three primary colours are red, blue and yellow, and are initially gratified with the range of colours afforded by mixing them. A deeper methodical investigation shows that these three are not enough: colours cannot be created at all lightnesses; black is hard to make; how do we ‘make’ white? Adding black and white paints to the palette to create shades and tints, respectively, dulls colour’s vibrancy; lighter versions of primary colours that keep colourfulness can be achieved by changing translucency (by adding water), though creating darker versions is not possible. The specific paint colours (e.g. the particular red) various manufacturers provide are different. In short, primary paints do not work! More seasoned artists use a very wide palette of pigments to achieve a good range of mixed colours. The paint mixing systems in DIY stores contain in excess of 20 ‘primary’ colours, with a recipe determined by colour, cost, covering factor and miscibility of pigments.

The colour mixing system just described is a largely subtractive system, where we start with the white of the paper and apply pigments to absorb different wavelengths of light at different ratios. The wavelengths absorbed are removed from our perception, leaving others to register colour. Paint is a complicated colour medium since it does not function purely by subtraction. Adjacent pigment flakes can reflect light in a mosaic fashion (in a style utilised on a larger scale by the pointillist artistic movement) in such a way that the eye ‘mixes’ adjacent colours by means of an additive process.

Additive colour mixing starts with black and adds light of different colours. In the computer and web-design age the use of this mixing method is becoming ever more familiar. With a different set of primaries from the subtractive system, it is simpler to explain and works more convincingly. For an additive colour mixing system, the primary colour set that enables creation of the widest range of colours is red, green and blue.

A key point regarding colour mixing is that most colours (the pure spectral colours—those comprising light of just one wavelength—being the exceptions) can be made using an infinite number of different spectral combinations. The eye cannot tell the difference between the mix of a very narrow range of wavelengths near 580 nm, or a combination of red and green light; both can be tweaked to create an identical sensation of yellow. We can see this by close inspection of a three-colour display showing an expanse of yellow where we find no yellow pixels—just dots of red and green light.

Additive colour mixing seems to be a more convincing argument for a three-colour primary system since we can see how adjusting the amounts of red, green and blue displayed in a given area on a display can afford a very full colour range, including virtually all naturally occurring ones. Broadcast systems and most of their associated displays, along with computer screens, cannot display monochromatic colours (arising from light of just one wavelength) since the broadcast standards were developed and designed for the primary red, green and blue colours historical phosphor sets could achieve at reasonable luminance. None of these transmission primaries are themselves monochromatic.

Revisiting subtractive colour mixing, we find that just three colours of ink are required to create a very wide range of colours with better control and performance than paints. Colour magazine and newspaper images include grass greens, brick reds and oceanic blues, and yet there are no inks of these colours used in the printing process. The inks, coloured cyan, magenta and yellow, subtract red, green and blue light, respectively, and are translucent enough to be overlaid. An overlay of cyan and magenta will subtract red and green, allowing only blue light to be reflected from the paper. Overlaying all three ink colours does not give an absolute black showing that the absorptive properties of inks are not perfect. For this reason (and also because an overlay of three coloured inks is very expensive), a fourth ‘key’ (black) ink completes the CYMK printing ink set. This introduces an element of redundancy requiring calculation of the combination of inks to maximise the use of the relatively inexpensive black ink.

1.3.3 Three dimensions of colour: the reason

The idea of trichromacy (three-dimensional colour) in humans was elucidated by Thomas Young in 1802 following experiments with human observations of coloured lights when he proposed that there were three types of photoreceptor in the eye, each with a different response to the visible spectrum. Hermann von Helmholtz in 1850, building on Young’s observations, proposed that the respective parts of the spectrum were specific to the short, medium and long wavelengths of visible light, and in time the principle of trichromacy has become known as the Young–Helmholtz theory. Svaetichin (1956) made the first measurements of animal cell responses and some of the first human retinal measurements were made by Dartnall et al. (1983) using microspectrophotopic readings of single eye cone cells.

The gangs of three retinal sensors in the human eye, each with a peak response at different points in the visible spectrum are known as short (S), medium (M) and long (L) wave receptors. It is a credit to biological engineering that responses from these three detector types are made in three ways as we move up the wavelength scale of visible light, respectively: L against S at the violet end, then S against M and finally M against L at the red end. The remarkably elegant comparison between L and S is due to a minor (yet highly significant) secondary spectral response peak in the L receptor as shown in Fig. 1.2. It is for this reason that violet has a distinctly reddish tinge. Cone responses are the subject of continued research and the set shown in Fig. 1.2 were generated by Stockman and Sharpe (2000).

Fig. 1.2 A set of evaluated human cone responses to light.

The fact that the optical responses of the three cone types overlap is the reason why it is impossible for a set of any three primary colours to make all colours we can perceive.

The tri-chromatic nature of human colour vision is not shared by the entire animal kingdom; indeed the colour vision of vertebrate animals such as tropical fish and birds can be more complex than that of humans. In birds, tetrachromacy (four colour receptors) is common. It is likely that pigeons are pentachromats. Reptiles and amphibians have four cone types (sometimes five). In early mammalian evolution it is believed that segments of colour vision were lost, possibly because they sacrificed multispectral resolution for better sensitivity to lower light levels enabling nocturnal activity. Placental mammals other than primates (including dogs, cats and mammalian farm animals) generally have two receptor colour vision, distinguishing blues from yellows but not reds from greens. For some mammalian primate species, this lack of colour vision was regained by gene duplication. The adaptation to discriminate between reds, yellows and greens facilitates identification of fruits and highly nutritional newly sprouting leaves. Papilio butterflies are thought to have pentachromatic vision. The most complex animal kingdom colour vision system has been found in stomatopods (such as the mantis shrimp) with up to 12 different spectral receptor types thought to work as multiple dichromatic pairs.

The human visual system does not seem to ‘measure’ amounts of red, green and blue light. Instead it appears to utilise a colour opponency system first proposed by the German physiologist Ewald Hering (1964) whereby the signals from the three cone types are converted into one luminance (lightness) signal and two colour opponency signals. To explain these two colour signals, we can place red, yellow, green and blue as fundamental colour points at compass points north, east, south and west, respectively, as shown in Fig. 1.3.

Fig. 1.3 The cardinal points of Hering’s colour opponent system.

Whilst one can have a yellowish green (lime green) or a bluish red (violet), there is no such thing as a reddish green or a bluish yellow. This suggests that there are two signals that represent the redness-greenness and blueness-yellowness, respectively, such that the co-ordinates (0, 0) indicate a neutral colour. The cells that generate these signals from the outputs of the retinal cells have been found in the brain’s lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) (Greenstein and Greenstein, 2000).

1.3.4 Extending the spectral bow to a hue circle

We shall now return to the challenge of creating a space to contain all visible colours.

Since all colours are made of spectral colours, it does not take a giant step in imagination to understand that all visible colours might be located within the confines of a bow-shaped area whose arc is an edge of pure spectral colours. Fig. 1.4 shows the bow of spectral colours plotted on the colour chart resulting from the CIE Standard observer (CIE, 1932), which involves a mathematical translation of the mean of 17 experimentally derived spectral human response curves. This particular chart may be considered to represent the proportion of redness of a colour (x) against its proportion of greenness (y). The spectral locus is not represented as a sharp-cornered inverted V because the spectral responses of the three detector classes in the eye overlap as shown in Fig. 1.2. The kink in the x-direction below 500 nm at the blue–violet end of the curve is because the L cones, mainly responsible for indicating redness, are also excited by the shortest wavelengths of visible light as previously mentioned.

Fig. 1.4 The spectral locus plotted on the CIE 1931 Standard Observer chromaticity chart.

It is now time to introduce the concept of hue. Definitions of this word come in two types: those that distinguish it from other colour-describing terms (e.g. lightness and colourfulness) and those which describe it as being the main property distinguishing red, orange, yellow, blue, etc.

There are some hues missing from the spectral set as violet seems to reach only a two-thirds blue, one-third red mix. In the bow of colours in Fig. 1.4, the 50:50 blue–red mix, called magenta, would be located somewhere along a straight ‘bowstring’ connecting the ends of the spectral locus, along with other hues completing the hue loop from violet (blue–red) to red. It is simpler to redraw the bow as a hue circle, as Newton (1730) did in his colour circle shown in Fig. 1.5.

Fig. 1.5 Newton’s original description of a hue circle (with added colour).

The next question is where to place the various hues around the circle. It is here that history and different user requirements lead to the development of many distinctly different definitions, some of which will now be outlined.

A good place to start is with Hering’s colour opponency theory, putting opponent colours facing each other on a hue circle as shown in Fig. 1.6. This is the basis of the ‘Natural Colour System’, developed by the Scandinavian Colour Institute (Skandinaviska Färginstitutet AB) of Stockholm, Sweden, and used internationally as a proprietary perceptual model for colour communication.

Fig. 1.6 The Hering hue circle as represented in the Swedish Natural Colour System.

The artist’s colour wheel derives from the empirical practicalities of pigments rather than physiology. It may be developed using a scientific approach to mixing the primaries (which are positioned at 0, 120 and 240 degrees, respectively), with the carefully measured proportions determining the angles of intermediate hues between the primaries. The result is highly dependent on the particular paints, lighting conditions and specific observer involved.

The North American artist Albert Henry Munsell (1858–1918) took a highly experimental approach to organising a hue ring according to perceived local hue discrimination, that is to say, equal short distances around the circumference of the hue circle equate to similarly perceived differences in hue. In his system, Munsell specified five principle hues: red, yellow, green, blue and purple around the circle as shown in Fig. 1.7, and it is important to note how different the positions of these colours are in this arrangement from those in systems we have encountered previously.

Fig. 1.7 The Munsell System hue circle.

The different spacing arises because the human eye does not discriminate colours throughout the spectrum evenly. Vision scientists exploit Munsell’s approach in their Farnsworth-Munsell (1957) hue test where a set of 84 colour samples from the Munsell system, each differing only with respect to hue, is used to examine colour vision quantitatively. Here, test subjects are asked to put the coloured samples in order. Each sample is numbered and the subjects’ ordering is mapped onto a hue perception chart. The 84 subtly different hues afford a test sufficiently sensitive for those with normal colour vision to make just one or two mistakes in swapping adjacent hue samples, whereas those with common colour-defective vision types are likely to swap samples across the hue circle—mixing up colours such as red and green.

In summary, we now have a full hue set in order around a circle, though we have seen that many systems favour different locations of colours on the perimeter. This is still a single dimension colour mapping system and we require more space to position all the colours we can perceive.

1.3.5 From hue circle to full 3D colour space

We have already seen how human colour perception uses three types of retinal cell with specific responses to spectral light to enable trichromatic vision, which is why a fully functional colour chart system needs three independent axes to contain all colours we can see.

Towards the end of Section 1.3.3 we mentioned that there is a transformation between three retinal signals to the colour opponent system. This works by what is known as the stage (or zone) theory (Handbook of Optics 2010) as shown in Fig. 1.8.

Fig. 1.8 A stage theory transformation from cone to colour-opponent signals.

Nevertheless, although the exact way our neural signals describe colour changes throughout the visual process, (for most of us) a three-dimensional colour system pervades. We have only described one of the three dimensions of colour in this colour-opponent system—that of hue. It is now time to introduce the two other independent components—lightness and saturation.

The full colour system we are now describing is what mathematicians call a polar space, described by an angle (hue), height (lightness or value) and radius (saturation or chroma). A good example of this three-dimensional colour representational system is the Munsell Color System introduced previously with the addition of its chroma and value axes as shown in Fig. 1.9.

Fig. 1.9 A representation of the three-dimensional Munsell Color System.

Value (also known as ‘lightness’ or ‘tone’) is quite an easy concept to grasp. Absence of any optical stimulation whatsoever is black, and as the intensity of optical radiation increases things appear lighter. As with hue, however, there are many different approaches to scaling lightness, a couple of which we shall now examine.

In the late 1920s, the results of many North American experiments on human observers were pooled into a table of values called the ‘luminous efficiency function’ (also known as the V(λ) function) to map the eye’s response to visible wavelengths of light. This average response was ratified by international committee (CIE, 1926) as a standard and is still used today in the measurement of light. The function describes how the eye’s response tails off either side of the peak response 555 nm. The luminous efficiency function varies significantly according to task and illumination level and its exact nature is a matter of continued debate. The version shown in Fig. 1.10 includes adaptations to the original 1926 curve by Vos (1978).

Fig. 1.10 The CIE luminous efficiency function.

The function suggests that monochromatic lamps of 510 and 610 nm emitting 10 W of optical power (as opposed to consuming 10 W of electrical power) should appear about half as bright as a 10 W, 555 nm lamp. Photometers are light detectors with a spectral response approximating the V(λ) function, whilst spectroradiometers measure the amount of light present as a function of wavelength and use a microprocessor to multiply, wavelength by wavelength, spectral power with V(λ) function values, summing to give a measure of how much light the eye sees.

However, human eye response to light is not linear—to enable it to cope with a very large dynamic range—and values calculated using the V(λ) function do not map to an equally perceived lightness scale. There is evidence to suggest that over daylight levels, the eye scales by a base 10 logarithmic function so that doubling the amount of light present results in significantly less than twice the lightness being perceived. Early calculators had difficulty evaluating logs, so a popular internationally adopted standard (CIELAB) ratified in 1976 used a cube root function instead. The CIELAB system is popular today in the specification of images and is implicit within the definitions of electronic images such as TIFF and PDF formats.

Dazzling occurs at high levels, affecting the perceived lightness scale. As light levels exceed a certain threshold, the eye’s response increases less with increase in optical power than by a log base 10 relationship. A similar flattening of response occurs at low light levels. At dawn and dusk lighting levels, we rely less on the trichromatic cone-based vision system and more upon a separate low light level vision system using a different set of retinal sensors called rods. To facilitate higher sensitivity to these lower light levels, rods’ cells are excited by a much wider range of wavelengths than cones, but because there is only one type of rod, they cannot discriminate between colours. The two respective physical vision systems are called photopic (for day) and scotopic (for lower levels). The rods have relatively more response to the violet end of the spectrum than the sum of the cones (described by the V(λ) function), so as we reduce light level from photopic to scotopic through the so-called mesopic region, several things happen: objects appear less colourful, violets appear lighter and reds darker. At the point where there is insufficient light to excite the cones (starlit levels) everything appears monochrome. The distribution of rods and cone types varies enormously over the surface of the retina so the average colour perception of a flat area of colour will vary according to its size, even at daylight illumination levels. The area of the retina corresponding to the central two-degree field of view is almost exclusively populated with cones, so at nocturnal illumination levels we lose the ability to see over this area. There is a third state of adaptation between photopic and scotopic called mesopic, which is the condition at dawn and dusk. At this time, both rods and cones are operating, with the rods contributing to the luminance signal but a semblance of colour still visible. This is the reason violet and blue flowers appear significantly brighter at twilight.

Finally we turn to what Munsell designated chroma, also known as saturation and colourfulness. Many people find this is the hardest of the Hue-Saturation-Lightness colour description triplet to understand.

If we have several coloured samples, identical in lightness and hue, but ranging from very colourful to a grey, they can be arranged in order of chroma, with the least chromatic in this group being the grey, and the most colourful one being the one of highest chroma. Fig. 1.11 shows two strips of fixed hue (red and blue, respectively) which increase in chroma from left to right.

Fig. 1.11 A range of saturations for a fixed hue and lightness.

We have by now become accustomed to the fact that there are many different ways people have scaled the various co-ordinates of colour, so it will be of no surprise that similar variations occur in defining chroma.

To find incidences of high chroma, one needs to locate instances of reflectance or emittance of a limited range of visible light. One such example is found in atomic emission spectra when very narrow spectral emissions result from electrons moving from one energy level to another. A familiar example is the orange colour of low-pressure sodium vapour lamps (to be precise there are actually two very close spectral emission wavelengths of 679.1 and 679.3 nm, respectively). The most colourful reflecting surfaces are those that reflect limited ranges of optical wavelengths. Considering the eye has a range of only 400 nm, it is surprising how wide a range of wavelengths of light reaches us from some highly coloured materials. Ultramarine reflects significantly over a wavelength width of about 100 nm, coloured LED power distributions typically span about 50 nm, whilst the physical interference effects creating the iridescent colours of bird and butterfly wings achieve a relatively high reflectance over a span of 150 nm. This lack of extremely chromatic natural reflecting colours is the reason we accept images created by paint, ink and self-luminous displays. Although they cannot generate all colours that exist, they can render most colours we see in nature.

1.4 Conclusions

Our window on the electromagnetic spectrum has limits, but we can discriminate over the wavelength range 380–780 nm by a process we call colour vision.

Human perceived colour is of three-dimensional nature because at daytime illumination levels (photopic) the three types of cone cells in the retina report proportions of different parts of the spectrum to the brain.

Although any given colour (excepting monochromatic ones) may be generated from an infinite number of different mixtures of spectral light, the position of the resultant colour in any given colour space is unique. This means a set of three numbers is all that is necessary and sufficient to specify a colour. There are complexities, such as viewing conditions, lighting levels, the areas of colours being viewed, their context and the particular observer.

Colour can be difficult to explain and understand because the real world of colour contains so many complications. For example, a common basic physics question on colour is: ‘What colour does a red object look under blue light?’ The examination board marking scheme awards marks only for the answer ‘black’ since all blue light falling on the red object will be absorbed. Any observant students, however, may have noticed how fluorescent red objects look red under blue light (because the process of fluorescence absorbs some of blue light’s energy and re-emits the remaining as lower energy red light), or that under blue theatrical lighting, some red is visible because blue filters transmit some red light (and, more significantly, infrared radiation, or they will swiftly melt).

We create colours by sets of three primaries, but because cone responses overlap and our primaries are not perfect, these sets cannot be used to create all colours that exist.

There is more than one set of primary colours because of the different ways the sets modulate light. The red, green and blue primaries form an additive set, adding different parts (roughly thirds) of the spectrum to stimulate the eye. Inks subtract red, green and blue light, and therefore reflect the complementary colours cyan, magenta and yellow, respectively.

Although the initial retinal information is in terms of amounts of three parts of the spectrum, the signals are adapted to a colour-opponent system in the brain, promoting the colour yellow to a special status (opposing blue).

There are many different colour specification systems because people require different things from them:

● immediacy (one can use ‘precise’ colour names such as ‘duck egg blue’—though these can be prone to interpretation issues);

● additivity (so that co-ordinates of colours can be added in some way to create a third co-ordinate describing the resulting colour, for example, in the CIE1931 colour matching system);

● uniformity (so that distances in colour space scale map perceived changes in colour—particularly useful in prescribing colour tolerances in manufacture processes);

● practical functionality (artists’ colour wheel, and specifying web colours using values for red, green and blue levels) and

● industry specific (e.g. the Pfund scale used in the honey industry to describe the colour of honey using a wedge of amber-coloured glass).

To summarise, a few of the more commonly used colour triplet systems are given in Table 1.1 with some of their key properties and applications.

Table 1.1

Colour triplet systems


Batchelor D. Chromophobia. London: Reaktion Books; 2000.

Berlin B., Kay P. Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. Berkeley CA: Brent University of California Press; 1992.

Chevreul M.E., Birren F. The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Applications to the Arts. (translation) New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold; 1981.

CIE. Commission internationale de l'Eclairage proceedings, 1924. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1926.

CIE. Commission internationale de l'Eclairage proceedings, 1931. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1932.

Dartnall H.J.A., Bowmaker J.K., Mollon J.D. Microspectrophotometry of Human Photoreceptors. 1983.69–80 L.T., op. cit.

Farnsworth D. The Farnsworth-Munsell 100-Hue Test for the Examination of Color Discrimination. Maryland: Munsell Color Company Inc.; 1957 (revised 1957).

Greenstein B., Greenstein A. Color Atlas of Neuroscience: Neuroanatomy and Neurophysiology. Stuttgart, NY: Thieme Flexibook; 2000.290.

Hering E. Outlines of a Theory of the Light Sense (L. M. Hurvich and D. Jameson, Transl.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1964.

Hunt R.W.G. Measuring Colour. third ed. Leatherhead: Fountain; 1998.

Judd D.B., Wyszechi G. Color in Business Science and Industry. third ed. New York: Wiley; 1975.388.

Nassau K. The Physics and Chemistry of Color: The Fifteen Causes of Color. New York: Wiley-VCH; 2001.

Newton I. Opticks: Or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light. fourth ed. New York: Dover Publications, Inc; 1730 (reprinted 1952).

Stockman A., Sharpe L.T. The spectral sensitivities of the middle- and long-wavelength-sensitive cones derived from measurements in observers of known genotype. Vis. Res. 2000;40:1711–1737.

Svaetichin G. Spectral response curves from single cones. Acta Physiol. Scand. 1956;39(Suppl. 134):17–46.

Vos J.J. Colorimetric and photometric properties of a 2° fundamental observer. Color. Res. Appl. 1978;3(3):125–128.

Further reading

Van Stryland E. Chapter 11 of handbook of optics. In: Bass M., Decusatis C., Enoch J.M., Lakshminarayanan V., eds. Vision and Vision Optics (Set): 3. third ed. Optical Society of America; . 2010;vol. III.


The human visual system described through visual illusions

A. Rizzi; C. Bonanomi    Università degli Studi di Milano, Milan, Italy


Visual illusions have always been a fascinating subject of study. However, they are not just fascinating: they reveal insights into an understanding of our vision system. In this chapter, we show a selection of colour illusions, representative of various mechanisms of our visual system. The visual process begins in the eyes: the receptive fields situated on the retina enhance the detection of edges, and continue to our brain. A range of mechanisms then takes place, including colour constancy, simultaneous contrast and assimilation. These contribute to the complex visual process that ensures a robust sensing of our world.


Visual illusions; Colour constancy; Simultaneous contrast; Assimilation; Spatial vision

2.1 Introduction

Images that we consider to be ‘illusions’ are visual configurations that do not behave as we expect; they contradict or simply challenge our beliefs (our inner model) about how our vision system works. There are thousands of visual illusions, too many to cover in a single chapter. For this reason, we will concentrate on lightness and colour illusions. However, even in this case, the number of illusions possible is still very large. Rather than providing a complete taxonomy of lightness and colour illusions, we present a selection of examples, each one typical to a group of illusions that are representative of various inner mechanisms of our vision system.

This chapter provides the reader with a perspective on visual illusion from the point of view of the interaction of colour and human vision. Yet unlike many other theorists on the subject (e.g. Gregory, 1968; Robinson, 1972; Kitaoka, 2010), the objective here is to pay particular attention to modelling the visual mechanisms beyond them.

Colour and its perception is a very complex topic, and this book with its many chapters is a proof of this complexity. According to the training received, different researchers may study the vision system from different perspectives. The point of view of this chapter is the investigation of the computational aspects of modelling colour vision, without focusing on any one of the many existing computational vision models.

Colour vision is a highly complex and structured task that takes place in a visual pathway that goes from the eyes to the brain. In the brain, colour sensation is formed and becomes colour perception and then colour categorisation. It follows that colour vision can be analysed and described at many different levels, and the boundaries among these levels are quite fuzzy and complex to define. We selected the colour illusions to present in this chapter with particular attention to the lower level mechanisms of colour sensation.

In Section 2.2, we briefly describe the structure of the visual system and its component: the eye, and the visual path (Section 2.2.1). Then the retina and some retinal phenomena, like Mach band and the Cornsweet effect, are described (Section 2.2.2). Finally, the background on the trichromatic and the colour opponent theories is reported (Section 2.2.3). In Section 2.3, we present two experiments that reveal the inner mechanism of colour sensation: the Land experiment (Section 2.3.1), and the Daw experiment (Section 2.3.2). Section 2.4 illustrates some colour illusions, in particular colour constancy (Section 2.4.1), simultaneous contrast (Section 2.4.2) with its local properties (Section 2.4.3) and assimilation (Section 2.4.4). Section 2.5 concludes the chapter.

2.2 Illusions in the context of human visual system

2.2.1 A short description of the visual system

The human visual system comprises three main parts: the eye, the lateral geniculate nucleus (LGN) and the part of the cortex brain that processes the visual information – the visual cortex. Fig. 2.1 shows a schematic structure of the visual pathway.

Fig. 2.1 The visual pathway of the human vision system.

The structure of the eye is roughly spherical, with a diameter of about 2.4 cm. The front of the eye is composed of an external lens, the cornea, which is in contact with a transparent liquid called aqueous humour. Behind the aqueous humour, the iris controls the diameter of the pupil. The pupil is able to change its diameter from about 2 to 8 mm, in order to allow more or less light to reach the retina – the membrane that lies in the bottom of the eye where the photoreceptors are set. In order to direct the light to focus on the retina, the lens is able to change its shape; altering the focal distance of the eye. When we look at an object, an optical image is projected on the retina.

An illustration of the eye can be seen in Fig. 2.2.

Fig. 2.2 Structure of the eye.

The retina is composed by two types of photosensitive cells, called rods and cones. Rods are responsible for low luminance level vision (scotopic vision). At high luminance level (photopic vision) cones are active, and permit the vision of the colours. Mesopic vision refers to an intermediate level between the two. In the central part of the retina there is an area called the fovea, which contains the highest spatial concentration of cones, allowing the best visual acuity in our field of view. Moving to the periphery of the fovea, the number of cones decreases while the number of rods increases (see Fig. 2.3).

Fig. 2.3 Distribution of rods and cones in the retina.

This is a simplified description of our ‘vision device’. In the retina, the light hits the photoreceptors after crossing the whole set of cells that connect rods and cones to the optic nerve, as illustrated in Fig. 2.4. Recent studies have proven that cone distribution in the retina highly changes (up to 40%) among different people, varying the personal ratio among each spectral type of photoreceptors (Hofer et al., 2005).

Fig. 2.4 Structure of the retina layers.

2.2.2 The retina and spatial vision

For many years, the retina has been considered as a passive transducer of the visual signal to the brain, but this is not the case. Many researchers have now revealed the active role of the retina in the processing of the visual signal through the complex layers of cells that connect the sensors to the optic nerve (Fig. 2.4). As we have seen, the light is captured by the photoreceptors (rods and cones) that generate electrical frequency modulated signals (spikes). Thereafter, the information passes through a complex set of layers composed of bipolar, ganglion, horizontal and amacrine cells. These layers pre-process and prepare the information to be delivered via the optic nerve. The concept of receptive field (Hartline, 1940; Granit, 1947; Kuffler, 1953) is used to describe some of the spatial properties of these layers. The area of the receptive field can be subdivided into two regions: the centre, and a ring around the centre (the surround). These two regions are mutually antagonist: in the on-centre cells the frequency of spikes increases when the light falls in the centre of the receptive field and decrease if it falls on the surround. The inverse behaviour takes place in the off-centre cells. This mechanism originates the so called lateral inhibition, a mechanism which increases the contrast in visual response, by enhancing the detection of edges. Two well-known visual effects, Mach bands (Fig. 2.5) and the Cornsweet effect (Fig. 2.6), seem to be strongly related to the antagonism between the on- and off-centre cells.

Fig. 2.5 Mach band illusion.

Fig. 2.6 Cornsweet illusion.

Fig. 2.5 is an illustration of the Mach band illusion (after Mach, 1865) in which a light band is perceived near the transition zone on the lighter side, and a dark band on the darker side.

The Cornsweet illusion (also known as the CraikO'BrienCornsweet illusion) (Cornsweet, 1970), first described by Craik (1966) and O'Brien (1959), is an effect where a shallow gradient in the central area of an image creates the impression that one side of the image is darker than the other side, but they are actually identical (see Fig. 2.6).

These and all the other illusions presented in this chapter prove that what we see is not the signal at each point, but the result of the spatial composition and interaction of the elements in the scene. Spatial mechanisms in the vision system have a precise function. The eyeball, in the same way as a glass-ground lens, is an optical device that is subject to glare. Glare is an image-dependent dispersion of scene luminance caused by unwanted scattered light through the lens. It causes a great loss of light intensity, dynamic range and contrast (McCann and Rizzi, 2007, 2009; Rizzi and McCann, 2009). This loss is compensated by the contrast enhancement mechanisms described above, that are considered to take place at retinal level, and by the spatial mechanisms of colour processing, which are presented in the following sections and that form the basis for another group of visual illusions.

2.2.3 Colour sensation

Cones provide colour vision and are characterised by three different pigments (long: L, medium: M, short: S) that absorb the spectral radiation differently according to the wavelength. L cones have an absorption curve that covers the long and medium wavelengths of the visible spectrum, with a peak at around 560 nm; M cones in the medium wavelength, with a peak around 530 nm; and S cones in the short wavelength, with a peak around 420 nm (Fig. 2.7). Note that the spectral sensitivities of M and L cones overlap, while the S cones curve is more separated from the other two. The spectral peak of the rods, that perceive only shades of grey, is around 507 nm.

Fig. 2.7 S, M, L cones responsivity.

Colour sensation comes from the interaction of the three signals of the cones; the discovery of this fundamental mechanism dates back to the 19th century. Young (1802) and later Helmholtz (1866) hypothesised that the human eye contains three sensors, each capable of detecting three separate signals from different spectral regions. By varying the relative intensity of the three sensors, called tri-stimulus, all the possible colour sensations can be achieved. The tri-stimulus principle is the basis of modern colorimetry; it is able to explain colour mixture, but it fails to explain some visual effects.

Hering (1920) observed that certain hues could never be perceived to appear together, for example red and green, or yellow and blue. As a result, in 1872, Hering proposed his opponent colour theory, claiming that there are four basic opponent colours: red and green, blue and yellow; thus, according to him, the visual system divides the colour information in three different channels: red-green, blue-yellow and black-white, the last relative to brightness. Hering's theory seems to be in opposition to trichromacy, but in recent years the two theories have been combined in order to describe how the human visual system works (Boynton, 1979). Each explains different stages of the vision: the trichromacy at retinal receptor level is encoded in opponent signals and transmitted to the brain through optic nerve and LGN.

Since optic nerve fibres are 100 times less than the number of photoreceptors in the retina (cones and rods are about 125 million, while the optical nerve fibres are around 1.3 million) (Bear et al., 2007, p. 306), some compression mechanism of visual information is needed to compensate for this large difference. One hypothesis is that opponent colour coding is functional to this compression.

All characteristics described so far are not sufficient to explain the genesis of colour sensation in our visual system. An important component is missing: the spatial configuration of the scene, which is explained and illustrated by the effects and the following experiments.

2.3 From isolated colour to colour in context: Some experiments

2.3.1 Land experiments

Edwin Land was the founder of the Polaroid Company and the author of many important inventions, including polarising filters and instant photography. From the 1950s, and working with his colleague John McCann, he undertook several experiments in order to study colour vision (Land, 1959; Land and McCann, 1971).

In one of the first experiments, they took two pictures of a coloured scene, a composition of fruit, using a black and white film. The first picture was captured placing in front of the camera a green filter, whereas a red filter was used for the second picture. Thereafter, they projected the two black and white transparencies (slides) by superimposing the two images. The picture captured with the red filter was projected with a red filter; the picture captured with the green filter was projected using white light (no filters) (the setup is visible in Fig. 2.8). Surprisingly, the image displayed on the screen not only showed white, red, and pink colours as expected from the physical point of view, but included many others. In the projected image, the peppers appeared to be green; the strawberry as red; the lemon and bananas as yellow.

Fig. 2.8 First Land experiment setup.

Land and colleagues continued to develop their research for more than 20 years, remarking how these colours appeared instantaneously and therefore were not due to any adaptation of the eye. They explained that the perception of a colour does not depend on the wavelengths reflected from the colour itself. In order to demonstrate this theory, they designed an experiment comprising a collage of shaded grey or coloured paper patches, called a Mondrian. In the first experiment they placed a dark grey piece of paper on one side of a collage, and a lighter one on the other side, with many other pieces of grey. A light source was positioned in a way that the same amount of light was reflected from the dark surface and from the lighter one. However, for the observer the dark grey patch still appeared dark, and the light grey still appeared light (Fig. 2.9).

Fig. 2.9 The black and white Mondrian experiment. The illumination is set as a gradient in order to have the same luminance from the two spots with different reflectances. Regardless of the fact that they emit the same luminance, they are perceived as different. From McCann, J.J., 1999. Lessons learned from mondrians applied to real images and color gamuts. Proceedings of the IS&T/SID Seventh Color Imaging Conference, pp. 1–8.

In a second experiment, Land and McCann created two large-scale coloured Mondrians, of about 100 coloured patches. Both were illuminated with three projectors with narrow band pass filters, with peaks in 670, 540 and 450 nm. A separate variable transformer was used to control the amount of light emitting from each projector. A photometer was used to measure the reflected radiation at any point on the Mondrian (Fig. 2.10).

Fig. 2.10 Coloured Mondrian experiment (numbers are only indicative).

At the beginning of the experiment, the three projectors lighting the left Mondrian were set in order to make the colours appear ‘natural’. Then, one projector at time, the reflected energy of a chosen patch was measured with the photometer. Turning off the projectors illuminating the left patchwork, the projectors pointing at the right Mondrian were adjusted separately in such a way that the test patch on the right collage reflected the same triplet of energy as the white patch on the left. However, regardless of the fact that the light coming from the right Mondrian's patch corresponded to the signal coming from the uniformly illuminated white patch on the left Mondrian, it was perceived as the original colour. The experiment is illustrated in Fig. 2.10 (with fewer patches), in which numbers are just an example; for the original data see (Land, 1977).

2.3.2 After-images and the Daw experiment

By staring at a red patch for a period of time, and moving the gaze to a white surface, one will see a greenish patch. This is called an after-image, and was illustrated by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe at the beginning of the 1800s:


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