First, a review. Most (but not all!) colors that humans can perceive can be represented (approximately) by a set of three numbers (R,G,B) where each variable runs from 0 to 255. Roughly speaking, a 0 is “none” of that color and 255 is “maximum” of that color. Thus (0,0,0) is black, (255,0,0) is red, etc. What’s interesting is which combinations get names in English, and which do not.
Suppose two colors are maxed out. (255,255,0) is equally red and green; if you’re familiar with color addition, you know this is yellow. Similarly, (255,0,255) is magenta, and (0,255,255) is cyan. So far, so good.
Now suppose one color is maxed, and another is at half value. Here’s where things get interesting. Consider (255,128,0), which is (in a sense) halfway between red (255,0,0) and yellow (255,255,0). Not surprisingly, (255,128,0) is called orange. But what about halfway between yellow and green, i.e. the color (128,255,0)? Mathematically, this should be as unique a color as orange, but (sorry) it just looks like a different shade of green to me. Why is that? What’s special about (255,128,0), but not about (128,255,0)?
It turns out that (128,255,0) has a name: chartreuse. But probably only one person out of twenty could identify chartreuse out of a line-up.
If you want to experiment, try the other “halfsies” using this RGB applet. The combinations you should test are
(255,128,0) = ORANGE
(128,255,0) = CHARTREUSE
(0,255,128) = ?
(0,128,255) = ?
(128,0,255) = ?
(255,0,128) = ?
Only one of these is obvious to me, i.e. the color (0,128,255) which is halfway between cyan and blue. That’s the color of a clear sky, and is known in English as azure.
Do any of these combinations have unique names in other languages?
Here’s a modern-day color wheel (thanks, Wikipedia!), which puts all of this into perspective:
[Note that “violet” here isn’t really true violet (as in a rainbow), which cannot be represented on an RGB computer monitor.]
Are these the names you came up with? Personally, I called (0,255,128) “dark mint green” instead of Spring Green, but what do I know.
And here we get to the psychology of color, which is the main point of this post. Look at the trifecta of red/orange/yellow: most people would classify those as three really distinct colors. Now look at the trifecta chartreuse green/green/spring green. Those all just look like green, to me. They aren’t as distinct. And I think the reason is completely in my mind.
Think back to when you studied color in kindergarten. The “primary” subtractive colors were red/yellow/blue. [That’s now known to be bullshit, of course; there are no three canonical primary subtractive colors; we instead make a choice of three primaries based on what colors those three could possibly make upon mixing (this is called the gamut) and cyan/yellow/magenta gives a better gamut than red/yellow/blue. Put another way, if you only had three crayons, then choose cyan/yellow/magenta instead of red/yellow/blue because more mixed colors will be available to you.] Anyway, now look at the RGB wheel and find red/yellow/blue. They aren’t equidistant. Something is wrong.
Here’s my thesis: I think that the red/yellow/blue bullshit we lived through at the age of 6 has biased us towards thinking that red and yellow are more different than they really are. Look at the wheel again. In terms of RGB numbers, red and yellow are as similar as blue and cyan. Hard to believe, I know, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
One final thought: in English, in kindergarten, when you mix white with red, you get pink. What about mixing white with green? Or white with blue? How come there aren’t unique names for those colors?
(255,200,200) = PINK
(200,255,200) = ?
(200,200,255) = ?