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How Light Absorption and Reflection of Artist Pigments Determine Color

Have you ever wondered how artists create different colors using paint? The answer lies in the fascinating science of light absorption and reflection. In this post, we'll explore how these principles determine the colors we see and how artists can harness this knowledge to create stunning works of art.

The Basics of Visible Light

Visible light is a form of energy that travels in waves, and we see different colors depending on the wavelengths of those waves. When light hits an object, some of its energy is absorbed by the compounds that make up the object, while the rest is reflected back to our eyes. The colors we see are determined by the frequencies of the reflecting waves, which is why different materials will have a range of various colors.

How Pigments Absorb and Reflect Light

Different pigments have unique chemical structures that absorb and reflect different frequencies of light, which is what creates the range of colors we see. For example, ultramarine blue and titanium white reflect different wavelengths of light, and when they are mixed, they create a new color that is the result of the combined wavelengths of light.

The Science Behind Light Absorption

When light interacts with a molecule, it causes the electrons to transition from a resting/lower energy level to an excited/higher energy level. During this process, the compound absorbs energy as a wavelength of a specific color of light. The color of the light absorbed depends on how much energy is required to move the electrons to the higher energy level. When the electrons return to their original energy level, they release energy usually in the form of heat. But sometimes energy is released as lower energy wavelengths within the visible spectrum, which contribute to the color we perceive.

Subtractive Synthesis in Nature and Art

Subtractive synthesis is the process by which pigments combine together to create darker shades by absorbing certain wavelengths of light while reflecting others. This is responsible for the range of hues we see in nature. For instance, a blue shirt absorbs all colors of light except for blue, which is reflected back to us and is what we see. Artists use this principle to create a wide range of colors by mixing different pigments together.


Understanding light absorption and reflection is crucial for artists to create the colors they want, and it also helps us appreciate the beauty of the world around us. By exploring the relationship between the structure of pigments, the wavelengths of light, and the colors we see, artists can unlock new possibilities in their work and create truly captivating pieces. So the next time you marvel at a beautiful painting or a stunning natural landscape, remember the incredible science behind the colors that make it so special.

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