The Miracle Of Light And Color

(From my book "A Recognition of Beauty - a wilflife artist's reflections on awareness)

               Do we even consciously think about light? Sure we know that the sun is the source of our light here on earth, but where did the sun come from? There are theories like “The Big Bang,” but nobody knows. I doubt that we will ever know. What we do know is that light is our connection to the universe and that it is light, and the energy it carries, that is responsible for virtually all living things on earth. It is the fundamental building block upon which all beauty in this world depends. I believe it is God’s greatest gift, yet it is so ubiquitous that a daily appreciation of it settles quickly to the back of our minds.

                How we perceive our world and our ability to recognize beauty depends on appreciating the miracle that light is. We have learned that light is actually a very unique and complex form of energy. The world’s greatest minds from Isaac Newton to Albert Einstein to Max Planck have struggled to identify and describe its nature. It is also that elusive thing that every artist chases after. After all, light is the source of color, its refraction through the atmosphere creates what we call atmospheric perspective and depth, and its behavior determines tone, shade, contrast and often our mood. All painters are “painters of light.” So for what it’s worth, I will try to explain my observations in such a way that will hopefully help in the recognition of the beautiful world that light bathes us in.

                Artists talk about “cool” colors and “warm” colors, and we all know the primary colors and the colors of the spectrum – but as I have gotten older, I have decided to try to focus not on “colors” at all, but rather, began to look at all color as light energy – for that is precisely what it is.

                In fact, the visible part of the energy waves being beamed towards us from the universe is only one-thousandth of a percent of the spectrum. We are continually bathed in a never-ending energy field. It is the energy from the waves from the visible part of the sun’s light that interacts with the atomic energy within matter to create what we perceive as color.

                Let’s stop a minute and ponder that phrase “what we perceive,” because it is our perception of color that I think is truly miraculous.  The human eye only has three color receptors within its rods and cones, generally described by their ability to identify the relative levels of red, green and blue light energy wavelengths (referred to as RGB in our imaging machines). Our perception of color however actually results from the activity of our brains to decode, interpret and combine that data in such a way that brings us a nearly infinite variation of tones, colors, brightness, contrasts, etcetera. Different people will see the same illuminated object in different ways.

                Think about this: the sun beams down energy waves to the earth, that energy bounces into our energy receptors and then our brain takes that data and creates for us the brilliantly beautiful and diversely colored world we perceive. (Flipping it right side up in the process – but that’s another discussion.) How did the sun communicate to our brains how to unpackage and arrange the data it was sending? And how did our brains come up with this concept of converting certain energy wavelengths to visible light – much less in such a varied and colorful display? Without our brains, and their humble servant the eyes, the colors in our world simply do not exist as “color” – only as energy. It is an extraordinary gift that gives life its beauty. It is our brains that create movies out of a sequence of still images and create the images in this book out of an arrangement of printed dots. It is our brains that also find serenity in a field of yellow sunflowers. I find that nothing short of miraculous.

                Color is not contained within the objects we see, color is created in our brains based on the energy wavelengths that the molecular structure of the objects absorb and reflect up into our eyes. This absorption/reflection can be explained scientifically this way: “The frequency of the incoming light wave is at or near the vibration frequency of the electrons in the material. The electrons take in the energy of the light wave and start to vibrate.  What happens next depends upon how tightly the atoms hold on to their electrons. Absorption occurs when the electrons are held tightly, and they pass the vibrations along to the nuclei of the atoms. This makes the atoms speed up, collide with other atoms in the material, and then give up as heat the energy they acquired from the vibrations."* That energy not absorbed is reflected away minus that section of the spectrum that was absorbed.  We perceive as color only those wavelengths reflected. A blacktop driveway gets hot in the sun because it absorbs so many wavelengths and we wear white because it deflects so many wavelengths that we stay cool. It is because objects rarely absorb all the energy that you hear artists say that true black rarely exists in nature.

                What does all this have to do with the ability to recognize beauty? Too often we are so focused on categorizing and labeling colors (cool/warm, red, orange, blue etc.) that we forget to really notice the energy waves that are creating them. I have finally come to the acceptance that light and color is such a complex soup depending on so many variables that I don’t need to understand and label – I simply need to be aware and observe. Not just the color energies themselves, but how they are bouncing and dancing around in the physical world. For example, do you notice a difference between what your eyes see and what a camera captures? The difference is that your brain is actively deciphering the energy, while the camera is simply recording the colors produced by the energy in that instant. The plein air painters, like the impressionists, thrived on this reality. I now use “warm” or “cool” as nothing more than a general descriptor so as not to limit my ability to perceive.

                What’s the point? I entitled this book “A Recognition of Beauty” in the hope that I could encourage readers to really see the world around them. When you realize that you are simply walking through a dynamic energy field you will start to notice the world differently. You’ll notice that shadows are not gray but bluish on a sunny day and brownish on a cloudy day. You’ll no longer see the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance but the entire space of air between you and them. You don’t need to understand it, or label it, or describe it, you just need to recognize the beautiful energy that envelopes us in color everyday.

                Whether you realize it or not, you are an integral part of a very dynamic world. Energy is bombarding you right now, vibrating the electrons in your skin atoms and reflecting what portrait painters call "flesh tone."

                Feel the buzz?


*Harris, William, and Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D..  "How Light Works"  10 July 2000. <>  29 January 2015.