Black and White Aren’t Colors
When I was growing up, one of the first color theory lessons I remember learning is ROYGBIV, which is an acronym for the order of colors in a rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet.
And then there were color wheels. Lots and lots of color theory wheels. But although I learned that red and yellow make orange, I never knew where white belonged on the color wheel. Or black. Black isn’t in ROYGBIV, where does it go?
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Value, Chroma and Hue
I eventually learned the mysterious answers to these questions, and they stem from the concept that there are three elements to every color: value, chroma, and hue. These three elements together are the key to understanding color theory.
Hue is essentially ROYGBIV. It represents the outermost circle of the color wheel. Between red and yellow is orange. Between orange and yellow is yellow orange. Between yellow and yellow-orange is yellow-yellow-orange, etc. These are all called “hues”.
Chroma is how intense the color is. Purveyors of Caribbean vacations are often quick to showcase the “azure” water on island beaches. This water is appealing to us because it is intensely colored. There is less particulate in the water than the greyer seas found in New England, which gives Caribbean waters the appearance of a more intense blue.
So although New England waves are blue, and Carribean island waves are blue, the Caribbean water is more chromatic – it is a more intense color of blue. The opposite of chroma is neutral. The New England water is a bluish grey and the blue is not very intense, it’s a neutralized blue.
Value represents how light or dark a color is. A stop sign is red, and poinsettias also red. But even though they are both red, the red stop sign is a lighter value of red than the darker red of a poinsettia. The ponsettia is a darker value of red than that of the stop sign.
Now that we have mastered the 3 basic elements of color, let’s take a closer look at why white and black are not actually colors.
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Have you ever tried to match whites before – say a shirt and pants – and been aggravated by the experience of trying to find the right white? When you put the two together, something just doesn’t look right?
So here’s the rub: the reason it is so difficult to match a white top with white pants is because there’s no such thing as white. White is not a color.
Think about it for a minute. Where does white go on the color wheel? Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. I’m a licensed art teacher and I have never seen or heard anyone throw a “white” in there. There’s no “W” in ROYGBIV.
Is White a Color?
White is actually more of a color adjective than anything else. Saying something is “white” is actually a descriptor for saying a color is very, very, very light in value. So, the “white” being described is really just a very, very light red, orange, yellow, green, blue or purple.
When you hear interior decorators talk about a “warm white”, what they are usually describing is a very light-in-value yellow or orange. When they talk about “cool whites” they are often describing very light blues or purples.
To be fair, the lighter a color is, the more difficult it is to discern its color. This is why so many people believe that white exists as its own color – it’s a catchall for any color that is light in value.
But if you take time to compare whites to each other, and then try to describe them as a very light red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple, you will find that they are easier to identify with practice.
I encourage you to try it now; look around the room and see if you can find three different “white” objects. If you HAD to assign a color to each of the whites, what would it be? It’s often helpful to put them next to each other for reference. Side-by-side, it is often easier to tell which white is warmer and which white is cooler, which is the first step to identifying its true color.
Read Next: How do opposites on the color wheel work?
Why Does It Matter?
Why should you bother spending time deciphering whites? Well, for one it is a great parlor trick to pull out the next time someone you’re being forced to converse with is being annoying. Also, it could keep you from losing your mind in a very different way.
There is a type of psychological torture called “white torture” that is used to extract information from targets by depriving them of sensory input. This often includes putting them in a white room, serving them white food, making them wear white clothing, etc.
Fortunately for the would-be torturers, there is no such thing as white. Armed with a thorough understanding of the concept “white”, well-trained prisoners can identify the broad rainbow of whites within their orbit, and stave off the intended distress of being placed in a world “without color”.
A well-practiced eye can see that the pillow case is a very light blue, and the mashed potatoes are a very light red. They can even take joy in knowing that their pants and shirt are actually very different colors despite the certainty of captors that they are white.
Dentists Know Whites
If you care about teeth, you might also want to pay closer attention to whites.
When making composite fillings, dentists have access to any variety of pre-mixed “whites”, and often have cards to help them choose which one to use on which patient. But they also have to cope with varying light sources, the fact that teeth are slightly transparent, and many other variables which affect the way humans view the dentist’s color choices in their final work.
Being able to break down “whites” into value, chroma, and hue can improve your dentist’s ability to match colors accurately because it isolates complex variables to be independently thought upon before making color-matching decisions. The next time you go to the dentist for a composite filling, I encourage you to check their art credentials.
Light Has Color
Understanding the properties of white is also highly beneficial to anyone who needs to buy a lightbulb. Have you ever really noticed how many options there are? How some lightbulbs claim to be “natural light” bulbs, and others “warm”? What they are really saying is that they are selling various light-value hues (ROYGBIV) of light bulbs.
The bulb described as “warm” is actually a very light value yellow. The bulb described as “natural” is actually a very light value blue. That’s right, natural light has a color, and it is blue. Considering the oceans and sky reflect blue, is it surprising that natural light does as well?
So the next time you are out lightbulb shopping, use your new color theory knowledge to make informed choices about which color you wish your light to be. Do you want your inside to feel like the outside? Pick the blue-hue bulb. Do you want your room to feel like light casting from a fire? Go for that yellowy-orange one.
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Black also doesn’t appear to have a home on the color wheel. This is because black is a very low value (dark) blue, purple, or even sometimes red.
If you ever drop water onto black ink, it runs blue or purple, or less commonly red. The value of these blues, purples, and reds is so dark, that we cannot see the hue very easily, and resort to calling it “black” which is a catchall phrase for very dark hues. When our water thins the pigment (and lightens the value) of the black ink, the hue becomes more easily decipherable. It becomes downright obvious, in fact, as we see it run in streams of hues that we DO recognize from the color wheel: reds, blues, and purples.
I will never forget the first time my mother turned to my five-year-old self while shopping to tell me the pants I picked out to match a shirt were the “wrong black”. My mind was blown – how could there be a “wrong black”? That was the first of many color lessons my mother taught me growing up through the palette of clothes-shopping.
I now understand that what my mother described as the “wrong” black was actually two different blacks with varying root colors. Some were very dark reds, while other were very dark blues or purples. So the shirt I had in my hand was a very dark value red, while the pants I mistakenly thought matched it were actually a very dark value blue. And my mother was right, the pants were the wrong black.
It takes training and knowledge to see the nuanced distinctions between different blacks and different whites. The lighter a color is, like what is commonly called “white”, the more difficult it is to discern its hue. The same is true for very dark colors. When something is very, very dark, it is difficult to tell which hue it is.
The important thing to remember is that whites and blacks both have hues. If you approach them with the knowledge that there is a ROYGBIV color in there somewhere, you are more likely to spot it. And by looking for these subtle differences between white and black hues, you can expand the color information your eye receives and processes.
What other colors are color wheel misfits? Let me know which ones you are curious about in the comments below.
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I teach color theory to my high school painting students. I would like to hear more about neutrals. Browns and grays.
I enjoyed reading about whites and black and I have always included them in the neutral category. Thanks for the information. Good stuff