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RGB 2017: The Philosophy

By Priscilla Shunmugam 5 December, 2016


In 1704, Isaac Newton first discovered that ordinary light is made up of a mixture of light of countless different wavelengths, or colours. This confused some people, because artists had known for a long time that they could create just about any colour with a properly chosen mixture of three paint pigments. Why did Newton’s experiment suggest that white light was made up of thousands of colours?

This mystery was finally addressed in 1802, when physicist Thomas Young proposed that the eye contains three sensors, one in the Red portion of the spectrum, one in the Green, one in the Blue, and each sensitive to a different wavelength of light.

This brilliant guess explained the apparent conflict between Newton and the artists: light really is made up of light of all different colours; but we can sense this colour spectrum only through these three sensors. The thousands of different hues that we perceive are just our brain interpreting the different ratios among the sensors.

Young’s theory was later expanded by physiologist and mathematician Hermann von Helmholtz, and became the Young-Helmholtz theory of trichromatic colour vision – the basis of the RGB colour model.

The RGB model in turn provides the bedrock for the present understanding of the processes of colour vision and the quantitative measurement of colour which underpins photography, technology and a huge variety of modern manufacturing and service industries.

This nerdy exploration into the science of light and colour began after I had finally discovered that there was no one arbitrary concept of primary colours. I had got it all wrong, all this while – it was only at the age of 35 (through the course of a 3 hour argument) that I first heard of additive and subtractive colour models.

For someone who has always felt intuitively knowledgable of and sensitive to colour, this is silencing.

I know now that my colour palette in fashion has drawn on non-technical, non-evidence based assumptions. It’s also clear how I could have benefited had I had the fortune of understanding colour in art or design school.

RGB 2017 is dedicated to this wonderful discovery, however late in life it came to me.


-Priscilla Shunmugam

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