Poster study, Anthony Ryder, Oil on paper, 6x4, 2011


Color is a property of light, which we perceive by means of the light sensitive cells in the retina of the eye. These cells, the cones, permit us to differentiate the range of frequencies of electromagnetic radiation known as the visible spectrum. The term ‘frequency’ refers to the vibrational rate of light energy. Light, like sound, is a form of vibrating energy. The frequencies of light emitted in the visible spectrum correspond to the colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.

White light, as it comes from a source like the sun, consists of an evenly balanced blend of all the colors in the visible spectrum.

The apparent colors of the things that we see have to do with the way light interacts with those things. In most cases, when light interacts with objects and substances, some portions of the light are absorbed, while the remnant is either reflected or transmitted. The reflected or transmitted light that comes from the object radiates in all directions. It carries with it only a portion of the spectrum, the part that wasn’t absorbed. It is the frequency of the light in this part that conveys the color of the object we see.


Light is emitted in various frequencies or wavelengths. These correspond to the colors of the rainbow. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet are families of hues having each a range of frequencies. They are arranged on the color wheel in a circle.

Color Wheel

Color Wheel (Source: Wikipedia)


Value is the lightness or darkness of color. Value is often understood in relation to the gray scale, with white at the top and black at the bottom, and a series of steps, or a continuous progression between the two ends. For any given hue there is a value scale. In the example at left are value scales for three different hues. 

Value Scale

Value Scale (Source: Wikipedia)


Intensity is the purity of the hue of a given color. As tonalities lose intensity they approach gray and become more ‘neutral’. As colors grow in intensity the hue becomes increasingly manifest and they become more ‘saturated’. In the sample below, the tonality is most intense at the top, and least intense at the bottom. Through the middle of the sample the intensity gradually changes.


Saturation Demo (Source: Wikipedia)


Hue, value and intensity are the three elementary qualities of any given color. With practice we can train ourselves to perceive them by eye. The confusion and perplexity that students may experience when they begin their training gradually give way to understanding and clarity of perception.

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© Anthony Ryder 2014