Text by María Calderón

There are theories and models that explain why color is light.

01Photographs by Martirene Alcántara

These have to do with how the brain processes the electromagnetic spectrum* and the human being’s ability to see visible light*.

Color is relative, mainly because if I say “green,” the green each reader will visualize is very different from the green I thought of, because the experience of “green” is individual. It is also relative because a color in two different situations changes according to the environment where it is found. It always relates or interacts with another color and the origin of light always changes; depending on its source, it can be natural: outdoor light, sunlight; or artificial: white light, daylight, yellow light, neon light, etc.


Color involves all the senses, it is not only a visual experience. We related to it by how we perceive what we see, what we taste, what we touch, what we smell and what we hear.

Of the millions of colors that we can see, only a few have proper names (although if we dig deeper, etymologically, they always relate to a subject): red, yellow, blue, green, orange, purple, beige, pink, brown.

The rest of the names are metaphors for the perception we have of them: caramel brown, bottle green, battleship grey, graphite, lavender, apple green, blood red, imperial red, cobalt, deep sky blue, etc. These names result from the alloy between color, texture and matter.


The difference between egg yolk yellow and canary yellow is a subtle variation in the longitude of the electromagnetic waves between one color and the other.  To make it easier to understand, it is a simple change in light.

But, if color is perception and perception is individual, how can one understand and work with color to transmit ideas or concepts?


To differentiate colors there has to be contrast; if there is contrast, the relationship between two colors or more creates plains, volume, perspective; it suggests movement, space and transparency.

Color has three properties: shade (color), purity and luminosity. For example: yellow is a primary shade within the visible light spectrum, and therefore is pure; if that yellow is lightened (towards white) until it turns pastel yellow or darkened (towards black) until it turns army green, that yellow looses purity. When it becomes pastel yellow it gains luminosity and becomes lighter; when it turns army green, it looses luminosity and becomes darker.


With these three characteristics we can explain, relate and contrast color, and at the same time, work with it knowing that any visual phenomenon can occur. Through the study and experimentation of color, these results can be controlled and used to our benefit, transforming the subjective and abstract into the objective and concrete.

* The electromagnetic spectrum is the light created by certain energy resources scattered in the shape of waves.

* Visible light is the electromagnetic spectrum that the human eye (brain) can process and see as color.


María Calderón did her postgraduate studies at the Schule für Gestaltung in Basel, Switzerland and at the Design School of Fine Arts in Mexico City; she did her B.A. in Graphic Design at the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City. She teaches at CENTRO (Centro, Diseño, Cine y Televisión). She creates identity and editorial projects.


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