Do You Belive in Purple?
by David Berry
On the face of it, this may seem like a silly question. After all, purple is a color and colors are physically tangible, aren’t they?
Well, some colors are, and some colors are not. Unlike our ears, which hear particular frequencies, the eyes blend frequencies so that we see one color even when there are many. It is as if we hear one true and clear note when someone plays a musical cord or a harmony. When we mix paint - say blue and yellow - we don’t see a cord or harmony of blue and yellow, we see green. To learn more about why our eyes do this, check out the links at the bottom of the page.
Where Purple Comes From
The sun is the primary source of light on earth, and it radiates light in the visible spectrum, which is a progression from a low frequency to a higher frequency, somewhat similar to sound waves or microwaves. Infrared is just below the low end, which begins with a very dark red, like a crimson. The spectrum of rainbow colors progresses with in the order of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue and Violet. Violet is just a very dark blue and has absolutely no red in it. After Violet is ultra-violet or UV.
A color wheel that shows purple or magenta very clearly midway between red and blue is not representative of frequencies of light, it is designed to show what think we see. The frequencies of light end as red and blue get darker, but never loop around to form a wheel. We use a color wheel to do things like mix paints. It is good to know when we mix blue and yellow; we sense green when we look at the result. Similarly, when blue and red is mixed together, our mind interprets this to be a new color, purple - but it is not really purple, it is still frequencies of red and blue.
Some will say that violet has a little red in it or that deep red crimson has a little blue. They will even find samples to prove their point, but colors are not simply the name on a crayon or can of paint. Indeed, most products that claim to be dark red, purple or deep blue are mixes of color with cheep colorants and fillers that produce a hue that is not true to the name. Science defines color by composition in terms of frequency of light and the spectrum reflectance of chemical pigment. When we examine light itself, pure frequencies of purple light do not exist. It is considered a “non-spectral” color. To quickly learn about the science of color, check out the links below.
The History of Purple
Until the 19th century, purple is considered a royal color. Nature produces chemical structures that typically reflect a narrow range of light. Some mollusk produce purple dyes for defensive smoke screens, but collecting the dye in necessary quantity makes it extremely expensive. Only a few plants, like the lichens used to make indigo, produced both red and blue pigments that are not fugitive or quick fading. Thus only royals who wish to show off in their finest uniquely purple clothes can afford the “royal color.” This all changes in 1856 when William Henry Perkin accidentally discovers that coal tar, a nuisance byproduct of coal mining, can be processed to create mauve, the first true synthetic dye. While very cheap and popular, mauve fades easily. Even so, the new purple allows royals to wear the color at all occasions and it becomes a fashion rave in English society. The manufacture of dyes from coal tar marks the establishment of industrial chemistry as part of the manufacturing process. To learn more about the history of purple off-site, click here.
The Illusion of Color
When we see a green leaf it is not a combination of yellow and blue, it is truly a green frequency of sunlight reflected by the leaf. This is true of most of nature, so the fact that our eyes blend colors a bit usually is not a problem. In fact, it is a big help.
If there are a bunch of green shades that are similar and a bunch of tan shades that are clustered nearby, say a lion in the woods; seeing each individual variation of color provides a great symphony of color and it can be difficult to instantly pick out larger shapes of similar color. Everything could look a lot like camouflage until something moves.
Our minds take the raw signals from they eye and process them into blended color relationships. This allows continuous fields of similar colors, like the head and body of the lion, to be interpreted as a single shape that is distinct from the surrounding plants. It is, of course, more complicated than this simple example, but the advantages of color blending work in tandem with other aspects of our eyesight to provide us this kind of advantage in the natural environment.
The Illusion of Reality
Purple does not exist in the physical world; it is only an illusion produced in our minds. Of course we all believe in purple because we “see” it, yet it does not physically exist at all. Much of what we think of as physically tangible in the world is actually a product of our mental interpretation of the world around us. Some things are more illusionary than others, but rarely do we see an accurate and totally complete picture of reality. For instance, it is practical to ignore the existence atoms when we look at a lamp or a dog. Our perception narrows to accommodate what is useful and practical, as it should. Nonetheless, we need to be aware that the greater reality exists beyond our perception. Without that understanding we will be unable to deal effectively with things that are immediately unexplainable.
Physics and science are beginning to discover a great chasm between what we think the world is like and the actual nature of the world. It is like being able to tell the non-spectral colors, like purple or a mix of blue and yellow that produce green, and the true spectral colors, those that are made up of pure light and exist in a greater reality outside of our own minds. The illusion of our own egos extends beyond our physical bodies and embraces all aspects of our environment. The Illusion of Purple is simple to prove. It is the rest of our personal world that is much more difficult to see as a figment of our own imagination.
Off-Site Suggested Reading About Vision:
For a broad introduction to the physics and scientific application of color written for the beginner who is comfortable with scientific terminology, click here.
Click here for a good basic introduction to the science behind color in every day life.
While it is practical and interesting, it suffers from minor inaccuracies.
For an important introduction to how humans and animals see color, click here.
Basic color theory, the theory of color TV and how electrical equipment is used to measure and produce color are covered in an interesting article; click here.