Book Review: Color: Light, Sight, Sense

Color:  Light, Sight, Sense, by Mortiz Zwimpfer

I honestly do not know if I would have read this book had I not been casting a wide net for a reading challenge I took to read several German books in translation.  This is not the sort of book that either expects or is likely to receive a large audience, although it is certainly an enjoyable book for those who appreciate its scientific approach.  While there are some cases where the translation is not perfect, generally speaking where the translation was not done on some of the text relating to images it is at least something that can be easily translated by the reader from the Germans, at least.  This particular book is one I got from my local library and it belongs to an art and crafts library, which seems odd until you realize that a great deal of the purpose of the book is to help people better understand color theory so as to be better at the use of color in visual arts [1].  And when one understands this purpose it becomes possible to appreciate the book on layers other than simply an informational or scientific one which this book does well, it must be said.

This book is a strange one, it should be admitted.  The book does not have normal page numbers, but rather is divided into 509 sections that are mostly a paragraph in length along with some sort of supporting image.  For a book about color and the development of the color sense of art students, this book has a striking amount of black and white and grayscale, probably to save on publishing costs.  The first chapter of the book deals with light (1) in terms of waves, sources of light, the emission of light, transparent and opaque materials, and the scattering of light.  After this the author turns to color (2) including the spectrum, additive mixing of colored light and subtractive creation of color through mixing pigments, and how color can be measured.  After this the author turns to the ways in which colors appear (3) in light, in translucent materials, on colored surfaces, through scattering, and due to interference.  Then the author looks at the eye (4), including its anatomy, optics, the retina, and light/darkness and color vision.  After this there is a discussion of how colors are created in the eye (5) including the optical mixing of small surfaces, positive after-images, negative after-images, the comparison of various color mixtures, and simultaneous alternating effects of colors.  From this the author moves on to a discussion of color designations (6) including names, differentiation, organizing pure chromatic and achromatic colors, spatial color organization, and differentiated systems of organization.  The effect and significance of colors (7) are then discussed, including interpretation and evaluation, sensor effects, biological functions, the symbolic aspects of color, and color as a pictorial medium.  Finally, the book closes with a brief examination of the technical reproduction of color (8) in photography, printing, and on screen and then the author closes with an index.

It is unclear, at least to me, how good this book is at improving the color sense of design students.  For one, I do not think I am necessarily the ideal reader of this book given my own very modest competence in such matters as art and graphic design.  Nevertheless, the book is very detailed in discussing the importance of context in determining the way that the eye sees color, pointing out the ways that colors are created and how they can provide information.  There are even some interesting examinations of the semantic domain of colors–in particular that of the color red with its association with the heart, revolutionary violence, the rising sun, and signage.  Overall, I think the book does a good job at showing how colors can be made either through light and pigments and how people understand color.  How much this serves the development of a color sense among artists, though, is something I would prefer them to speak about for themselves.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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