In the previous post I looked at how coloured shadows are formed. As I wrote it, I realised how much there is to learn from the coloured shadows demonstration; that’s what this post is about. The image above shows coloured shadows cast by a white paper disc with a grey surround.
In the image at the top, we’re mixing shadows. If we were mixing lights in the normal way, it would look like the picture on the right.
So what do we learn from the coloured shadows image?
Red, green and blue add to make white
The white paper disc has all three lights shining on it, and it appears white. Mixing lights shows us this too.
The three lights still exist independently when they are mixed
Some descriptions of colour light mixing could leave you with the impression that when we mix red, green, and blue lights together to make white, they combine to make a new kind of light, a bit like the way butter, eggs, flour and sugar combine to create something completely different: a cake.
But if that were so, we’d only get a black shadow. The fact that we get three coloured shadows show that the three coloured lights maintain their independence even though they’re passing through the same region of space. It’s very like ripples on a pond: if you throw two pebbles into a pond, the two sets of ripples spread through the same region of water, each one travelling through the water as if the other pebble’s ripples weren’t there.
Coloured shadows obey subtractive colour mixing rules
When we mix coloured lights, additive colour mixing rules apply:
- Red and blue make magenta.
- Red and green make (surprisingly) yellow.
- Blue and green make cyan.
- All three colours add to make white.
In the coloured shadows image, it looks at first glance as if we are adding together coloured lights. But if we were, we’d expect the centre of the pattern, where all the lights overlap, to be white, as it is in the light-mixing image. Instead, the centre of the coloured shadows pattern is black.
The reason is that we aren’t adding coloured lights, we’re adding coloured shadows, and now subtractive colour mixing rules – the rules of mixing paints – apply.
In the cyan shadow, red has been blocked by the disc, leaving green and blue. In the yellow shadow, blue has been blocked by the disc, leaving red and green. Where the cyan and yellow shadows overlap, the only colour that has not been blocked by one disc or the other is green, so that’s the colour we see. We get the same result when we mix blue and yellow paints: the only colour that both paints reflect well is green. (If the blue and yellow paints reflected only blue and only yellow respectively, the mixture would appear black.)
In the black centre of the pattern, all three lights are blocked by the disc. Something similar happens when you mix every colour in your paint box together.
Colour printing is based on these subtractive colour mixing rules.
Brightness matters, and blue isn’t very bright
In either of the light- or shadow-mixing images, the boundaries between the regions aren’t all equally distinct. The least distinct ones are:
- magenta and red
- green and cyan
- blue and black
- yellow and white
In each case, the difference in the colours is the presence or absence of blue light.
There are two things at work here. Firstly, more than we might think, our vision is based on brightness, not on colour. We happily watch black-and-white movies; after a while we hardly notice the absence of colour.
Secondly, our sensation of brightness is largely due to the red-yellow-green end of the spectrum – blue makes a very small contribution, if any. So although the presence or absence of blue light can have a strong effect on colour, it has a weak effect on brightness. So boundaries defined by the presence or absence of blue light tend to be relatively indistinct compared to those defined by the presence or absence of red or green light.