A Designer’s Perspective: is Black a Colour? What is White, Exactly?
Is black a colour? Is white a colour or not? This is a subject that many people have discussed since the beginning of time. Some believe that black is a hue, while others disagree. So, which is it: colour or not?
The interesting question is one of the most searched for topics in colour theory. If you ask a physicist, “Is black a colour?” you will receive an answer based on physics. While if you ask an artist or a child with coloured pencils, you’ll get various answers.
So let’s start with black. Black is the absence of light, so it is not a colour in that sense. How about white? Is white a colour? White (light) is made up of all the colours on the spectrum – Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet (ROYGBIV).
Because there are many colours combined to make one hue (white), some people consider this a colour; but others don’t because you cannot see individual colours within white light. So technically speaking, pure black and white light are classified as “achromatic”, without colour. While regular black and white are considered “chromatic”, with colour.
So to get back to the original question, is black a colour? Black is not technically considered a colour, but it is actually made up of many colours. A black object absorbs all visible colours and reflects none of them to the viewer.
Is white a colour? Regular white is classified as chromatic and is an actual colour because you can see unique hues within white light; however, this varies depending on your outlook or understanding of what makes something “colour” instead of a shade.
What is colour?
The first step in providing accurate answers is to have a basic understanding of how colours are made.
In a living organism, such as an animal or plant, colour is produced in different ways depending on its specific genetic makeup. Humans and other creatures with pigments in their skin, fur or hair make colour through melanin—a pigment-producing substance found throughout nature.
In the digital world of computers, smartphones and TVs, colour is made through phosphors on a screen. Phosphor is produced by combining Red, Green and Blue (RGB) diodes to create white light filtered into different hues using masks or screens with tiny holes to produce individual colours— one at a time instead of all together as they are on the digital spectrum.
In print, colour is made through dyes, such as those found in ink or paint. Print processes use Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and (Key) Black, also known as CMYK, to produce various colours.
The primary difference is that print is aSubtractive process (mixing light), while digital is an Additive process (filtering light).
Subtractive vs additive colours
Subtractive colour is the process by which hues are added together to create different colours, just as they are on screen.
Additive colour is the process of using filters or masks that absorb specific wavelengths of light and allow others through—the opposite to printing where ink is used instead of clear lights or screens. The Additive colour model uses RGB (Red, Green and Blue) while Subtractive uses CMY (Cyan, Magenta and Yellow).
It’s also critical to grasp the idea of “primary” colours. The fundamental rule is that there are three colour combinations that cannot be achieved by mixing other colours together. Red, Yellow and Blue are generally known as the primary colours, owing to their inextricable connection with each other.
Orange, green, and purple are the secondary colours (violet is the highest colour on the spectrum). A secondary colour is created by mixing two primary hues. Tertiary or quaternary-colour hues are made by mixing primary with secondary colours to create shades ranging from light-to-dark to each hue.
Pure white and pure black are uncommon
You may think of a pigment as an opaque black or a transparent white, but it actually contains various colours. Nothing can exist in complete purity as white or black; only unfiltered sunlight or the darkness of a black hole can do so.
Therefore, white is never pure because it is made up of all the colours in light. White is considered to be an “achromatic” or shade because there are multiple hues within white light that cannot be seen individually; but if you filter out certain wavelengths (or frequencies) on a screen, you can see them as individual colours—which is different than seeing colour with your eyes under natural lighting conditions.
Black is not technically classified as a colour either – black is actually shades created by the absence of light. Black exists when no visible wavelengths reach our eyes and therefore appears like empty space without any background for objects to reflect onto (similarly, dark matter makes up most of the universe). The only way we know about this is through our eyes that can sense light, which is why we can see objects even though it is dark.
Black is made up of all the colours in reflected light (not filtered), but black is considered a shade and not an individual colour because we cannot individually see them.
How designers utilise black and white
Black is the pinnacle of cool. It is reliable, ambitious and transformative. Black is an ideal colour for branding because it is strong, elegant, and unobtrusive, serious, and approachable.
White is also a great choice in branding as well – white is pure, clean and classy. White creates crispness through simplicity, allowing your content to shine by not taking away from it with other distractions or conflicting elements on your website design. There are times when black & white may be more effective than colour combinations such as yellow text on a dark background (or vice versa) if you want to make sure that all attention remains focused where you need it most within the layout of your website/app design.
Pure black is the absence of light. Regular black is never pure black because it is made up of all the colours in light but filtered into an individual hue that cannot be seen with our eyes under natural lighting conditions (similarly, pure black is only possible in the dark matter that makes up most of this universe).
While white light is not technically classified as a colour either – white light is actually shades created by the absence of colour. However, regular white is made up of all the colours in reflected (filtered) light and is considered “chromatic” or hue shade because there are multiple colours within white that cannot be seen individually. But if you filter out specific wavelengths on a screen, you can see them as individual colours — which is different than seeing colour with your eyes under natural lighting conditions.
The answer to this question is based on your viewpoint and context, but in a technical sense, black is not considered an individual colour, whereas white is.
However, designers such as here at Sanders Design may have an artist perspective. We can use these colours effectively to give you an advantage because black is solid and bold while white is clean and classy. Both are ideal choices for branding since they can create crispness through simplicity when appropriately used within the layout of your website/app design.
We will always have this debate between black and white, which is “more” or “less” than the other. But it’s up to you whether you consider them both shades or two different colours altogether that cannot be formed using just primary hues on their own (i.e., secondary colours).
So do you consider black to be a colour? I will leave you to decide this for yourself.