Is black a color?

Some say black is not a color. Others say it is. Is it? Much of this argument depends on one’s understanding of color. Do you interpret color as an internal response of your nervous system to an external stimulus? Or do you consider color a physical phenomena “out there”? Actually it can be considered both and, depending on how you think about color you get a slightly different interpretation of whether black is a color or not.

The dictionary definition of color is:

“the quality of an object or substance with respect to light reflected by the object, usually determined visually by measurement of hue,saturation, and brightness of the reflected light;saturation or chroma; hue.”

Right. No clarity as to whether black is a color here. If one looks at the physics of this question, definitions of light, color and perception can be a little vague. When you get into the quantum mechanics of light, it can become down right mind boggling! That kind of stuff is way beyond me but in my basic layman’s view, light is made up of photons. Photons in themselves are vague little packets of energy that exist somewhere between a particle and a wave. To me it seems like a photon is more of a concept rather than a physical thing. But the frequency of these photons (waves/particles?) determines the properties of chroma while the quantity of photons impinging on the eye determines the amount of lightness or darkness.

But, and this is a big but, keep in mind that the interpretation of color all happens in our heads. Color is simply how our nervous systems interprets an energy source that is entering our eyes. So in this sense black would be just an interpretation of the brain, just like any other color.


Lets take a different approach. Think about a value scale of color. Begin with a bright color of red and start making it darker. Darker values of red are still considered a color. Very dark values of red are still considered a color of red. The darkness is created by the fact that fewer photons of that particular wavelength are impacting our eyes. The color does not become less of a color because the number of photons impacting our eyes diminish. We just interpret the color as a darker color. So why then, when the number of photons drops to zero, and what we perceive becomes blackness, do we all of the sudden label that as a non color. Blackness is still our perception to stimulus, just like any other color. So why isn’t black a color?

How about using sound as another analogy? After all sound is just another energy source in the form of waves that impacts our nervous system. Think of a single pure note, perhaps A-440, the note that orchestra’s usually tune to. It’s pitch is determined by frequency and it’s amplitude defines the volume. In this analogy having the note decrease in volume getting quieter and quieter until it can’t be heard is like a color value range. Is this like black? If so, most would consider the silence to NOT be a sound. Under this interpretation black would not be a color!

I’ve heard people go round and round with this argument and it obviously depends on how you interpret color. There is not necessarily a real clear answer but it is something fun to think about.

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