As an artist, I deal with color every day. From managing color balances in photography to making sure that photos and videos don’t have a color shift occurring in them. Also, in design, by working with Pantone numbers to assure that the printers print my design the exact colors I’ve specified. (That’s really just the beginning of working with colors.) In fact, Gunter Wyszeski estimated that the human eye can differentiate 10 million different colors. But, Michael Stevens (Stevens) asks,
What color is a mirror?
If you look up images or illustrations of a mirror you might answer silver, or gray because that’s how they are often depicted, but the obvious answer would be that a mirror is really whatever color it faces. Stevens says,
If you look inside a mirror, it becomes ‘you-colored.’
What Gives Objects Their Color?
Really, an object is actually whatever color in the light spectrum that it doesn’t absorb. Sticky notes appear yellow, because when hit with light, it absorbs every color except yellow. The yellow light is reflected, and hits our eyes, therefore making a sticky note appear yellow.
A perfect mirror reflects every color so that we can see ourselves, or whatever else is within the frame of a mirror. So in a way, you may say that a mirror’s color is actually white. However, a mirror doesn’t show color in the same way that pigment does. So….
How do Mirrors Work?
Mirrors reflect an incoming ray of light in a singular, outgoing direction—specular reflection. This is the type of reflection that creates an image of the very thing that is in front of the mirror. Bad astronomy jokingly said that a mirror is more of a “smart white.” But wait, didn’t I say in the paragraph before this that these attributes apply to perfect mirrors? Stevens says:
We live in the real world where there are no perfect mirrors. Every mirror absorbs a little bit of light. Not enough that matters…but when you take a look at the spectrum of light reflected by a typical mirror, you will find that it best reflects light in the 510 nanometer range.
Okay….great. So what matters about the range in which a mirror reflects light? Well, this range is the exact color range that we typically perceive as green light. So if you want to get technical, a mirror is actually a bit green. If you’ve ever investigated a mirror tunnel, you might notice this for yourself. If you don’t know what a mirror tunnel is, it’s when two mirrors face each other and create a tunnel effect. You can see a great series of photos depicting this effect here. The mirrors reflect the same scene back and forth over and over, each absorbing a little more visual light, thus giving the repeated reflections a green tint. So, even though mirrors are actually a little green, let’s talk about white.
In french, white is blanco. Spanish–blanc. And in english, the word containing these root words is—black. So how did a word meaning the opposite of white come from root words that mean “white”? Well, those words come from the same ancient-indo-european root word “bhleg,” which meant: shine, burn, or flash. Some languages took this words definition to mean the brightness of an object, while others thought it meant what was left behind, or “the burned.”
If you have blue eyes, your eyes aren’t actually colored blue…in the sense that the molecules in your eye are absorbing all other wavelengths of visible light except for the blue. Surprisingly, your eyes are blue for the same reason that the sky is blue. Interference.
The light from the sun passes through our atmosphere encountering various molecules of air. The size of these molecules allow for light of longer wavelengths to pass through, while keeping the light of shorter wavelengths crash into the molecules (such as blue light) and scatter. This is also known as the Tyndall Effect. This is why we see blue when we look at the sky away from the sun. In outer space, these air molecules don’t exist, thus making outer space look black. When light from the sun has to pass through a lot of light, more of these colors get absorbed allowing only the longest wavelengths to pass through—red. This is what gives the sunrise and sunset their color. Let’s jump back to the eye for a minute.
Back to Eyes
The iris of your eye has a hazy layer where light can be scattered just like the sky. Through a similar but slightly different process (the Tyndall Effect vs. Rayleigh Effect) shorter wavelengths are scattered more, making your eyes look blue, unless you have melanin in your iris in which case your eyes could look green, hazel, or brown.
If you want, check out a survey done by XKCD. He has a pretty interesting post about how different genders call different colors.
So, enjoy colors a bit more today, and keep in mind some of the stuff you’ve learned here.
Thanks for reading,
Austin Duncan, Author
Sources are present in the links found throughout this article. The concept of this entire post and its content is highly borrowed from Michael Stevens from VSauce. Look him and his channel up, it’s really interesting.
If you have any questions or need to contact the author, use the form below: