What do we mean by “colour”?
In the field of graphic design, it is important to understand colour and the way it works when played with shade. If we look at it from a scientific perspective, colour is nothing but an expression of light. Specific materials absorb as well as reflect certain wavelengths of visible light. This is what leads to objects becoming of a certain colour to our naked eye. A red bar reflects and disperses red light back while absorbing every other wavelength of light. Hence, what humans see is the colour red. We see white only when almost all the light gets reflected. We see black when no light gets reflected.
Let’s Talk about Black First
Black is known to be the darkest colour. It is the result of complete absorption or absence of visible light. Black is a colour with no hue, which makes it an achromatic colour, like grey and white. Often, it is used figuratively or symbolically for representing darkness. White and black have often been used for describing opposites such as evil and good, the Age of Enlightenment versus the Dark Ages, and night opposed today. Right from the Middle Ages, the colour black has been the symbolic colour of authority and solemnity, and because of this, it is still commonly worn by magistrates and judges.
It is the most common colour used to print documents, newspapers, and books. It is because the colour gives the highest contrast on/with white paper. Hence, it becomes the easiest colour for reading. Similarly, a black script over a white screen is a format most commonly used on computer screens. As of 2019, MIT engineers have made the darkest materials by vertically aligning carbon nanotubes.
The History of Black
Black was among the first colours used by painters in the Neolithic cave paintings. Ancient Greece and Egypt used this as the colour of the underworld. In the Roman Empire, black came to be the colour of mourning. Over the centuries, it was frequently seen as a colour of evil, magic, witches, and death. Towards the fourteenth century, black was worn by government officials, clergy, judges, and royalty all across Europe.
Black also became the colour of the industrial revolution, primarily fueled by coal and by oil later. Towards the nineteenth century, statesmen, businessmen, and romantic poets started wearing this colour. Black came to be a high fashion colour towards the twentieth century. As per surveys in North America and Europe, black most commonly associated with evil, violence, force, magic, secrets, the end, mourning, and elegance.
Moving on to White
Just like black, white too is an achromatic colour and has no hue. It is regarded as the lightest colour and the opposite of black. It is the colour of milk, chalk, and fresh snow. White-coloured objects can fully reflect and scatter every visible wavelength of light. White on computer screens and television sets is created by mixing green, blue, and red light. In our day to daylight, we often confer white with white pigments. It is especially titanium dioxide of which is produced over 3,000,000 tons every year. As per surveys conducted in the United States and Europe, white is a colour most associated with good, perfection, honesty, new beginnings, exactitude, neutrality, anything new, and cleanliness.
White has become an important colour for almost every world religion. The head of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope, has worn clothes since 1566. It is to symbolize sacrifice and purity. Pilgrims from the Shinto religion of Japan as well as in Islam wear white. In Japan and in Western cultures, white is the most common colour of wedding dresses as it symbolizes virginity and purity. Various Asian cultures also see white as the colour of mourning.
Getting into its History
In ancient Rome and ancient Egypt, white was worn by priestesses as a symbol of purity. Romans also wore white togas to symbolize citizenship. Towards the Middle Ages as well as Renaissance, a white unicorn was seen as a symbol of chastity while a white lamb symbolized purity and sacrifice. White was the royal colour of the kings in France and also of the monarchist movement, which opposed the Bolsheviks in the Russian War from 1917 to 1922.
White marble was used for facing Roman and Greek temples. With the emergence of neoclassical architecture in the eighteenth century, white came to be the most common colour of capitols, new churches, and other government buildings. It happened mainly in the United States. White was also widely used in the modern architecture of the twentieth century as a symbol of simplicity and modernity.
So, Are They Really Colours?
Even though black and white are usually considered colours, it all depends on one’s perspective. In art, black is generally seen as a colour while white is not. Artists see white as the complete absence of all colours and black as the presence of all colour. However, in light, what holds true is the exact opposite of this notion. White becomes the presence of all colour while black, the absence of it. Scientists, on the other hand, see white as an amalgamation of colours and not black. Many would regard black and white as shades and not colours.
Our minds pick these as unique colours. Colour is nothing but the reflection of certain portions of the light spectrum. Violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red is the colours we can spot in a pure rainbow. The optic nerve picks these reflections, and the brain translates them into the “colours” that we know. While white reflects all the colour, black reflects none. A perceiver of black does not perceive anything at all. For example, when you see an image of a flag with yellow stripes next to black next to the green, you only see the yellow and green. You see nothingness when you “see” black. However, as the green and yellow are in contrast, the black appears to be present.
What does Science Say?
When we look at the scientific side of things, colour becomes the phenomenon of light. However, pigment, and not light, is used for printing black images or a black object on white paper. Hence, artists should use the darkest colours of paint to bring out black. What is visible to us as light with white colour or a pigment with black colour actually has numerous dark or light colours.
There is nothing purely black or purely white. The exceptions would be the depths of the black hole or the unfiltered sunlight. Electromagnetic radiation and light make the additive colour. This model of colour theory states that all colours combine to create the perception of light. It is also known as the RGB model as red, green and blue are used as primary colour while working with additive colour.
Summing it Up
To put it technically, white is not really a colour. All the colours in the visible light spectrum combine together equally and what we see is white. White is made by combining all the colours. For example, when there is a refraction of “white” sunlight, its component colours get identified. These colours are violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red. If you place all these colours over a wheel and then spin the wheel, white is all that you would see. On the other hand, Black cannot be seen and is the comparative perceptions of its surroundings.
You can define it as a visual impression that is experienced in the direction of white visible light that cannot reach the eye. To put it all in a nutshell, white and black are values. When all the colours and mixed together and none of them shine out, we get black. On the other hand, when all the colours are mixed together, and all of them reflect out, we get white.
What about Black-and-White Images?
Black-and-white (B&W or B/W) pictures bring together white and black in a continuous spectrum to produce a range of grey in various shades. A picture that used just the two shades of black and white would appear similar to any silhouette. Hence, terming a picture as a “black and white photo” is, in fact, a misnomer. “Grayscale” is a more technically accurate term. To make it more specific, you can call it a “grayscale monochrome”.
An image that had just actual black and white pixels is a binary picture. It is actually black and white from which the history of numerous visual media has typically started. Thanks to ever-improving technology, the media moved on to colour. However, this rule comes with its exception, and that includes black-and-white fine art photography, along with numerous art films and motion pictures. (See also. Why are bright colours eye-catching?)
The Contemporary Use of Black-and-White
From the late 1960s, many mainstream movies have been filmed in black-and-white. Its reasons are mostly commercial, since selling a movie for TV broadcasting becomes more difficult when it is not in colour. 1961 was probably the last year in which most of the Hollywood movies were released without colour or in black and white. When it comes to computing technology, the term ‘black-and-white’ refers to a binary picture with just pure white pixels and pure black pixels. We would normally call a ‘black-and-white photo’, a picture with shades of grey, becomes a “grayscale” in this context.
Is White or Black really a Colour?
Are white and black actual colours of light? Some consider white to be colour because white light comprises all hues on the visible light spectrum.