Brain Pickings

Color Harmony: An Animated Explanation of How Color Vision Works circa 1938


Vintage black-and-white film explains the wonders of color vision.

Human vision is one of the most remarkable capacities of our bodies, its precise mechanism the subject of much fascination, from gorgeous vintage illustrations to cutting-edge modern science to Sesame Street stop-motion. In 1938, The Handy (Jam) Organization — the same folks who brought us an homage to makers and hands-on creativity, an animated explanation of how radio broadcasting works, a visual tour of mid-century design, the original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer animation, and a primer on ultraviolet light — produced Color Harmony: a fantastic animated explanation of how color vision works, how other animals use their eyes, and how the human eye functions to see colors both separately and in combination.

The irony, of course, is that on the timeline of film innovation, color didn’t permeate Hollywood until the 1950s — mainstream film technology in 1938 was confined to black-and-white, so all the live footage is devoid of color, complemented instead by hand-drawn color animation.

We are able to see mixtures of two-color rays as one color. We don’t need green light in order to see green, and we don’t need orange light to make us see orange. Mixtures of blue and yellow light and yellow and red light will create green and orange for us. To make the eyes see all color, then, only the three primaries — red, yellow, and blue — need be used. From these primaries, a complete color circle can be created. That is why it is possible to reproduce the brilliant colors of nature, faithfully, with just three primary colors in modern color reproducing processes.


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