Color Theory, with Cats: Part 1

This was an unfinished draft meant to be published on April 3, 2010. Enjoy?

Je kunt beter over je fiets lullen dan over je lul fietsen.

–Dutch proverb.
Translation: something about bicycles and some untranslatable stuff.

Color Theory, with Cats: Or How to Really Understand Color

Part 1 – Beyond RGB

Color theory is really complex. If you don’t think so, you are either somebody who doesn’t understand color or you’re a color scientist. Actually, scratch that, you’d have to be a supergenius color scientist (respekt), because the color scientists I know think color is complex too—and that’s not just an ego thing.

I realized that color theory was complex from the moment I accidentally hit a button on an old computer monitor and had no idea what any of the menus meant. From then on, I’ve had a fine education in physics and computer science (if I say so myself) and I dabbled in psychology and biology with a bit of reading as well. Even so, I never really put all the pieces together until now. Now, I think I finally have a coherent model of how we perceive color from light.

So, it really grills my cheese to hear people talking about just how simple color vision is. These range from regular people who never have to deal with the specifics of image capture or color reproduction to art majors who insist that the universe is made from the color wheel to web designers who have no idea what they are talking about: “Hey, you just have this hexadecimal thing that ranges from 00 to FF and it represents all the colors of the rainbow! I’m so pro at computers; Xo, allow me to teach you hexadecimal numbers!”

On second thought, no web designer knows what he/she is talking about, so that was a bad example.

Nonetheless, color ignorance (not to be confused with colorblindness) grills my cheese so much that I have to look at pictures of kittens when I think about all those people living in fear of the truth. In fact, it motivated me to write this series of articles on really understanding color—in Georgia springtime with a cat sleeping next to me:

And I can still feel my blood boiling a little when I think of the people who would say things like:

  • “If you combine red, green, and blue, you can get all the colors of the rainbow!”
  • “The spectrum has every color visible to human eyes!”
  • “Octarine is the eighth color1!”

Look, my cheese just gets really grilled on this one, OK? I mean, just think of what a widespread understanding of color would do to progress racial equality!

But I digress. Here’s your damn article. With cats.


I will be using numerous generalizations and assumptions in this part of the series; for a more in-depth look into specific topics, see the later parts of this article. Let’s start the generalizations of color with the thing that lets us see color: light.

Without specifics with respect to quantum mechanics et al, light is electromagnetic radiation that we humans can see. As you learn from any physics class, light is both a wave and a particle—it can do all of the funky things waves can do, like reflect off of mirrors or refract through lens, as well as all the things particles can do, like being easy to understand.

For the sake of this article, we’re going to think of light as particles. Light particles are usually known as photons, and can be visualized as little packets of energy that each have a direction and a speed. The speed is pretty much the same for all of them, and tends to be the speed of light c (not to be confused with my friend GS’s C, which is the stocker ticker for Citigroup).

This is a good way to visualize a collection of photons moving in roughly the same direction:

Except this article is called “Color Theory, with Cats,” not “Color Theory, with No Cats at All,” so here’s a better way to think of them:

This picture would be accurate if you just keep in mind that photons occupy no space at all, but are instead purely energy. That’s why they move so fast, and also why you can’t hear sunlight meowing.

a哦ihasofpouheuh哦哦ijoioimkjhooph oia jodhwaiu

  1. Ed: After receiving numerous corrections on this point, I’d like to point out that “octarine” is indeed the “eighth color,” whatever that means. []