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Text II: History of colour theory


History of colours dates back to the ancient Greek philosophical texts written in dialogues by Plato and Timaeus (390BC), passages in writing of Aristotle (350BC) and De Coloribus (330BC). In that study of colour the interests of artistic painters and their understanding of the behavior of light and colour were taken as a basis.

According to the old colour mixing theory the “simple” or primary colours were white and black or light and dark. From this primaries the “noble” hues of red, yellow and blue were mysteriously derived. By mixing the “noble” hues, the ancient artists got the “composite” hues of orange (gold), green and purple.

In 1390, Cennino Cennini published a description of how artists worked with colour. He described seven colours. Four (black, red, yellow and green) were mineral in character. Three more - lime white, the blues (ultramarine, lapis lazuli and azurite) and orange were colours which needed to be developed artificially.

In the visual arts, colour theory is a body of practical guidance to colour mixing and the visual impacts of specific colour combination. There are also categories of colours based on the colour wheel: primary colour, secondary colour and tertiary colour. Although colour theory principles first appeared in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti (1435) and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (1490). The tradition of "colory theory" began in the 18th century, initially within a partisan controversy around Isaac Newton's theory of colour and the nature of so-called primary colours.

In 1704, Sir Isaac Newton published his Opticks, which made several points about colour. He said that the source of colour was not substances, but light. He demonstrated that the different colours of the spectrum result from light being refracted. He called this attribute of light refrangibility from the Latin word refringere which means the ability to be refracted. He distinguished that each colour had a specific angle of refraction, when light passes through a prism of lens. He argued that orange or violet light were just as “primitive” as red and yellow because they cannot be broken down farther into more basic colour. He identified seven primary colours in this order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.

Newton saw the colour spectrum as a close system. He attached the red starting point to the violet end point and made a “circle of colours”where the red and violet overlapped and added the colours of magenta and puple which did not appear in the color spectrum. There was no black and white in the circle, but the center was white, which corresponded to the result of mixing all light colours together. But Newton did not understand the difference between additive and subtractive colour mixing. The knowlege of this is directly connected with the special structure of a human eye, which was discovered later after Newton’s reseaches.

In 1810, Goethe published his comprehensive Theory of Colours in which he described the physiological effects of colour.

In 1801 Thomas Young proposed his trichromatic theory, based on the observation that any colour could be matched with a combination of three lights. This theory was later refined by Jame Clerk Maxwell and Hermann von Helmholtz. Newton's law of mixture were experimentally confirmed by Maxwell in 1856.

At the same time as Helmholtz, Ewald Hering developed the opponent process theory of colour, noting that colour blindness and afterimages typically come in opponent pairs (red-green, blue-orange, yellow-purple, and black-white). Ultimately these two theories were synthesized in 1957 by Hurvich and Jameson, who showed that retinal processing corresponds to the trichromatic theory.



Exercise 1: Answer the following questions:

  1. What is colour?
  2. How are the colours created?
  3. Who developed the colour theory?
  4. How did people in the ancient time understand the colour?
  5. What inventions in the colour theory were made by Sir Isaac Newton?
  6. Describe the structure of a human eye.
  7. What is the range of the visible light wavelength?
  8. How is the colour created in the electronic devices?
  9. Give the definition of RGB and CMYK.
  10. What happens when one or more types of a person's colour-sensing cones are missing or less responsive?



Exercise 2: Find the English equivalent to the Russian word:


1) цвет:

a) light

b) brightness

c) colour


2) сетчатка:

a) rods

b) cones

c) retina


3) источник:

a) source

b) science

c) device


4) невидимый:

a) visible

b) invisible

c) colour-sensing


5) отражать:

a) to refract

b) to reflect

c) to react


6) дальтонизм:

a) colour blindness

b) colour separation

c) colour definition


7) преломление:

a )regulation

b) refraction

c) recombination


8) трехцветный:

a) trichromatic

b) trigonometric

c) triadic


9) химия:

a) chemise

b) chemistry

c) chemisette


10) различать:

a) develop

b) distinguish

c) discover



Exercise 3: Match a scientist with his biographical facts :

Plato (427 BC-348 BC) A A Greek Pythagorean philosopher, features in Plato’s dialogues, where he is said to come from Locri in Italy. He is credited with lost work “On the Soul of the Universe”, although all ancient references to him derived from Plato and he may be a fictional character invented for the dialogues
Timaeus (420 BC-380 BC) B An English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher. He described universal gravitation and the three laws of motion. He built the first practical reflecting telescope and developed a theory of color based on the observation that a prism decomposes white light into the many colours that form the visible spectrum.
Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC) C A German writer, artist and politician. His work includes epic, lyric poetry, prose and verse dramas, memoirs, an autobiography, literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy, and colour.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) D A Classical Greek philosopher, mathematician, student of Socrates, writer of philosophical dialogues, and founder of the academy in Athens
Isaac Newton (1642 -1727) E An English polymath. He is famous for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. He made notable scientific contributions to the field of vision, light, solid mechanics, energy, physiology, language, musical harmony and Egyptology.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) F A German physician and physicist who made significant contributions to several areas of modern science. He is known for his mathematics of eye, theories of vision, ideas on the visual perception of space, color vision research, and on the sensation of tone, sound and empiricism.
Thomas Young (1773-1829) G A German physiologist who did much research into colour vision and spatial perception. He proposed opponent colour theory in 1892. He disagreed with Thomas Young and Herman von Helmholtz.
James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) H A Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. Together with Plato and Socrates he is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy.
Herman Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894) I A Scottish mathematical physicist. He formulated classical electromagnetic theory. He considered being one of the greatest physicists of all times, behind only Newton and Einstein.
Karl Ewald Konstantin Hering (1834-1918) J An Italian Renaissance polymath: painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer.

Exercise 4: Complete the sentences with correct endings:

1. Some researchers report that humans can distinguish about:

a) 10 million different colours;

b) 16 million different colours;

c) 1 million different colous.


2. Most of the colours we see around us and all the colours we see on TV or computer monitor can be created from:

a) four different coloured lights;

b) seven different coloued lights;

c) three different coloured lights.


3. The human eye has three types of cones which receive:

a) ultraviolet wavelengths;

b) short, medium, and long wavelengths;

c) infrared wavelengths.


4.The additive primary colours are:

a) black and white;

b) cyan, magenta and yellow;

c) red, green and blue.


5. Colour blind person can distinguish:

a) fewer colours;

b) more colours;

c) no colours.


Exercise 5: Fill in the gaps, using the words from the box:

electromagnetic spectrum, additive primaries, colour, printing inks, imaging, infrared, subtractive primary, ultraviolet
  1. …………….. is a combination of the physical sensation of light and the psychological interpretation of it.
  2. The three colours red, green and blue are called …………. ………….. .
  3. When an additive primary colour is taken away from white light, the remaining colours form a new color which is called ………….. ………… .
  4. RGB are the colours used in …………. .
  5. CMYK are the system of colours, using in ……. …….
  6. Light is the visible portion of the ………… ………… of the radiant energy.
  7. The invisible rays vary lower than 380 nanometers are called ……………….
  8. The invisible rays border further 740 nanometers are ………………


Exercise 6: Put the sentences into appropriate Perfect tenses:

  1. I already (to see) during the experiment that colour derives from the spectrum of light.
  2. I never (to think) that we see colours because of the cones’ stimulation.
  3. We (to read) that history of colours (to date back) to the ancient Greek philosophical texts.

4. It was mentioned that a colour-blind reproduction system (to give) very inaccurate results for the other observers, human or non-human.

5. Newton (to identify) seven primary colours before he (to publish) his book Opticks .

6. You (to read) any philosophical texts about colours?

7. We arrived at work in the morning and found that somebody (to break) into the laboratory during the night.

8. At first, I thought I (to do) the experiment well, but I soon realised that I (to make) a big mistake.

Exercise 7: Match the term with the definition:


Light A To take a number or amount from another number or amount. The symbol for this is “-“a minus sign.
Colour B A part at the back of human eye that sends light signals to the brain, where they are changed into images.
Spectrum C Inability to see the difference between some colours, especially red and green, because of a medical condition.
Retina D To put numbers or amounts together to calculate their total.
Nanometer E The complete range of colors into which light can be separated when it passes through a prism.
Colour blindness F Brightness from the sun or from a light source (electrical equipment, candle, etc), which allows us to see things.
To add G The quality of being red, green, yellow etc.
To subtract H A unite for measuring length in the metric system. There are one billion (=one thousand million) nanometers in a millimeter.

Exercise 8: Translate into Russian:

  • A deep shade of red
  • A delicate pink tone
  • Reddish hair
  • Dark green trousers
  • Lovely deep blue eyes
  • Rich brown velvet
  • The men were wearing somber suits and black ties
  • Bright yellow paint
  • Curtains in vibrant shades of red
  • He tends to wear silk shirts and loud ties.
  • Look at those gaudy purple sunglasses
  • Garish reds and bright yellows
  • Pale gray feathers
  • Light colors work best in north-facing rooms.
  • She often wears pastels.
  • Faded blue jeans.



Exercise 9: Read and act out the dialogue:

Speaker 1: -What is a rainbow?

Speaker 2: - I think it’s one of the most spectacular light shows observed on earth. Indeed the traditional rainbow is sunlight spread out into itsspectrum of colours and diverted to the eye of the observer by water droplets.

Speaker 1: -Why does the rainbow bow?

Speaker 2: -Really, this shape of rainbow describes the fact that the rainbow is a group of nearly circular arcs of thecolour all having a common center.

Speaker 1: -What makes the bow?

Speaker 2: -Well, we see the formations of a rainbow by raindrops. It’s a problem in optics that was first clearly discussed by Rene Descartes in 1637. The bow appears not only in the sky, but also in the air near us, whenever there are drops of water illuminated by the sun, as we can see in some fountains. The rays of light act on these drops and pass from them to our eyes.

Speaker 1: -Why don’t we see a full circle?

Speaker 2: -Oh, that’s because the earth gets in the way. The lower the sun is to horizon, the more of the circle we see right at the sunset; we would see a full semicircle of the rainbow with the top of the arc 42 degree above the horizon. The higher the sun is, the smaller is the arc of the rainbow above the horizon.

Speaker 1: -Whatmakes the colours in the rainbow?

Speaker 2: -The traditional description of the rainbow is that it is made up of seven colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Actually, the rainbow is a whole continuum of colours from red to violet and even beyond the colours that the eyes can see. The colours of the rainbow arise from two basic facts: first, sunlight is made up of the whole range of colours that the eye can defect; second, light of different colour is refracted by different amounts when it passes from one medium (for example, air) into another (water or glass).

Speaker 1: - What is the rainbow’s distance?

Speaker 2: -Well, it is nearby of far away, according to where the raindrops are.

Speaker 1: -And, do you know any proverbs or saying about rainbow?

Speaker 2: -Let me think…

“Rainbow at night, shepherd’s delight.

Rainbow in morning, shepherds take warning”


“If there be a rainbow in the eve,

It will rain and leave;

But if there be a rainbow in the morrow

It will neither lend nor borrow”



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