This is a collection of pages on the theme of color vision. As it is unusual in several respects I feel a short introduction will be useful.

I am by training a research psychologist with a long affection for biology and astronomy; I have extensive experience with a variety of statistical models and research paradigms; I enjoy the menial and subtle tasks of writing.

I began these pages as an offshoot of my study of watercolor painting, which exposed me to the dogmatic catechism of artists' color theory. It was perplexing and frustrating for me to discover that most "color theory" ideas are based, through a process of almost verbatim transmission, on 18th century nonsense: "color theory" is not a theory but a fable, and not really about color but about hue. This launched me on the inquiry to get to the bottom of things and to post what I learned here.

I recently conceded to myself that these pages are not suited to artistic issues and, as part of a watercolor painting site, were miscategorized by search engines. So I have brought them together under a new index and directory to make more explicit their fundamentally technical nature. (The many links remain to art materials and pages better classified as color theory.)

The vast literature on color vision is veined throughout by a variety of very different disciplines, and the phenomena of color are subtle, evasive, and deceptive. (It is suggestive, I think, that two among the greatest scientific minds, Newton and Maxwell, turned their attention to color primarily to describe it more clearly.) Because of this complexity, color vision is rarely discussed as a holistic sensory experience, in terms of the shape and logic that contains it and makes it dynamic.

This narrative would be of great interest both to artists and laypeople, if anyone were knowledgeable and perceptive enough to write it all down; most of the color literature is divided into thin strands that are each intensely dyed in detail and procedure, and painsmaking is the only word to describe the task of weaving them back together.

At the same time (as Goethe understood), color traces the full arc of our consciousness, from sensory transduction to thought and language; and (as Goethe attests) color is an irresistible seduction for cranks and dilettantes of every persuasion. I take it as a sign of partial affirmation that the site receives a lot of daily traffic; but it's also a signal of the site's shortcomings that vision scientists link to it by mentioning its artistic point of view and artists link it by mentioning its scientific tone.

Every preface contains a confession, so here's mine. My aim was to examine color as a facet of human nature — the more artistic and subjective side of human nature — and to explore both the geometrical logic and sensual mystery of our visual experience. To that end I gave an account of color's sensory shape, judgmental basis and dynamic adaptability that includes research and artistic content. I am aware of having jumped into deep water and swum against strong currents, but I can only say that errors and omissions are mine to confess and yours to beware.

I have made the unscholarly choice not to footnote every fact or assertion. But I have gone to great pains to ensure accuracy, to cite authors and publication dates for all images, and to list all important and sufficient sources as endnotes to each page or content section.

Among my most avid fans are retired academics, technocrats and scientists who have taken up painting as an autumn leisure. I have learned much from their adulatory, corrective and sometimes scolding input, and I am happy to have found an audience suited to my tale.

They make me confident that readers who want to be informed and who are not deterred by the density of the presentation will already know enough, or have common sense enough, to read the site wisely. My fondest wish is that some few will be inspired to write of color vision with an eye to the total experience — sensual, judgmental and dynamic — that has languished behind centuries of misconception, abstraction and specialization.



Last revised 08.01.2005 • © 2005 Bruce MacEvoy