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How is the color white created?

How is the color white created?

White is seen as the color of purity, cleanliness, and neutrality. But how exactly is the color white created? The color white occurs when an object reflects nearly all light back to the viewer’s eye, without absorbing any of the visible wavelengths. There are a few key ways that the color white can be produced:

Mixing RGB light colors

The primary colors in light are red, green, and blue (RGB). When red, green, and blue light are mixed together in equal amounts, they create white light. This is an additive color method, meaning the more light that is added, the closer to white the color becomes. Computer and TV screens create white by combining red, blue, and green pixels.

Mixing paint pigments

With paints and pigments, which use a subtractive color method, the primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. When these three pigments are mixed together equally, they absorb all color wavelengths except white, which is reflected back to our eyes. White paint contains all three pigments blended together.

Rayleigh scattering

Rayleigh scattering describes the scattering of light off particles in the air. The sky appears blue because shorter blue wavelengths are scattered more easily than longer red wavelengths. But when light scatters off all the different sized particles in the atmosphere evenly, it creates white light, which is why clouds appear white.

Reflective surfaces

White can also be created with surfaces that reflect a broad spectrum of visible light evenly. Fresh snow looks white because the ice crystals reflect back all wavelengths. White objects and paints contain reflective materials like titanium dioxide that reflect light across all colors.

The Physics of White Light

To understand how white light is produced, we need to start with some basic physics concepts. White light is composed of all the colors of the visible light spectrum. Visible light is part of the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-rays, and gamma rays. Light waves have specific wavelengths, which determine their color.

Color Wavelength (nm)
Red 620-750
Orange 590-620
Yellow 570-590
Green 495-570
Blue 450-495
Violet 380-450

When all the wavelengths of the visible spectrum are combined together, they construct white light. So white light contains all possible colors equally. The color white has no single dominant wavelength.

Additive vs. Subtractive Color Mixing

There are two main ways that colors can be mixed to create other colors – additive and subtractive color mixing.


With additive color mixing, light wavelengths are combined to make colors. This applies to light sources like computer/TV screens, theater lighting, and RGB LEDs. The primary additive colors are red, green, and blue. When all three are mixed equally, they produce white light.

As more colors and light are added, they move closer to white:

Colors Added Resulting Color
Red + Green Yellow
Green + Blue Cyan
Blue + Red Magenta
Red + Green + Blue White


Subtractive color mixing applies to surfaces and pigments, like paints, dyes, and inks. The primary subtractive colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. When mixed together, they absorb all color wavelengths except white.

As more colors and pigments are combined, they absorb more light and move closer to black:

Colors Mixed Resulting Color
Cyan + Magenta Blue
Cyan + Yellow Green
Magenta + Yellow Red
Cyan + Magenta + Yellow Black

Methods of Producing White Light

There are several primary ways that white light can be produced by mixing colors of light or pigments:


RGB LEDs (red, green, blue light emitting diodes) contain clusters of red, green, and blue LEDs. By adjusting the brightness of each LED, they can produce most colors, including white. Combining the three at full brightness generates white light. RGB LEDs are used for lighting, TVs, computer monitors, and more.

Laser light shows

Laser light shows split a laser beam into red, green, and blue beams. The three lasers are then aimed at the same spot, combining to produce a vibrant white point of light. Varying the intensity of each laser can produce different hues.

Stage lighting

Stage lights often use RGB filters or gels to produce colored light. A common technique to make white light is to use red, green, blue, and amber filters on separate lights, aiming them all at one spot to mix the colors.

Film and photography

Lighting for photography and film also balances different color temperatures of light to achieve natural white balance that matches sunlight. This usually means combining daylight (bluish) and tungsten (reddish) lighting.


Fireworks generate their colors by heating chemical salts and compounds to high temperatures. Certain compounds release white light when heated, like magnesium and aluminum. Combining explosions of red, blue, and green fireworks makes white.

Paint mixing

As explained above with subtractive color mixing, combining cyan, magenta, and yellow pigments in paint absorbs all hues except white. Many white paints mix titanium dioxide or zinc oxide with colored pigments.

Snow and ice

When sunlight enters snow and ice crystals, the white color results from a near equal scattering of all visible wavelengths of light in all directions. This Rayleigh scattering reflects the white light back to our eyes.

Foam and bubbles

The air bubbles in foam and soapy bubbles act similarly to the ice crystals in snow, reflecting and scattering all wavelengths of light back to the eye evenly. This creates a white appearance.

How Different Materials Create White

There are a range of compounds, colorants, coatings, and structural techniques used to make white objects:

Titanium dioxide

One of the most common ingredients used to create white pigments and paints is titanium dioxide, an opaque, naturally occurring mineral. It strongly scatters visible light, causing white reflection.

Zinc oxide

Like titanium dioxide, zinc oxide is another mineral that efficiently scatters light across the visible spectrum by reflecting and diffusing light. It is used as a pigment in paints, plastics, ceramics, and more.

Bleached materials

Bleaching is a process that removes colors and whitens materials. It usually involves oxidizing chemical reactions with oxygen compounds or reducing agents. Paper, cloth, and hair can be bleached to turn white.

Structural color

Some animal fur and bird feathers appear white because of structural color, not pigments. Tiny air pockets and light channels in hair strands equally scatter all wavelengths. This creates the visible effect of white.

Foams and aerogels

Foams contain many small air bubbles that effectively scatter light in all directions. This makes foams like shaving cream appear white. Aerogels are ultra-lightweight solid gels filled with air that give them a translucent whitish color.

Colorless compounds

Some clear and colorless liquids and solids also transmit light equally, giving them a white appearance. Water, clear plastics, diamonds, salt crystals, sugar, and snow are examples. Impurities usually add color.


Shiny metals like aluminum, tin, and stainless steel have a silvery-white luster due to high reflectivity. They strongly reflect all visible light wavelengths. Other metals can be plated or polished to increase surface reflection.


Fluorescent materials absorb UV light and emit visible white light through luminescence. Laundry detergents often contain fluorescent whitening agents that brighten fabrics by converting UV light into white-blue wavelengths.

True vs. Off-White Colors

While white is defined as reflecting the full visible spectrum equally, there are many slight variations categorized as off-whites or near-whites:

Off-White Colors Description
Cream Light yellowish white
Eggshell Pale yellowish white
Beige Light brownish white
Vanilla Soft yellowish white
Champagne Gold tinted pale white
Pearl Grayish, shimmery white
Bone Yellow-tinged grayish white

These off-whites contain small amounts of other wavelengths that affect their hue and shade. True white still reflects the full, equal spectrum of visible light.

Whiteness and Color Perception

Our perception of the color white and lightness is influenced by a few visual effects:

Surrounding colors

The contrast effect – lighter colors appear even lighter against dark backgrounds. White objects stand out more against black.


Whiter shades seem to glow and appear lighter when they are more intensely illuminated.

Optical illusions

The Helmholtz illusion – identical white fields appear darker when adjacent to brighter white squares.


Our brains interpret the color of objects by comparing to known light sources and surroundings, like snow, swans, or paper.


White holds different symbolic meaning in various cultures. Western societies associate white with purity, while some Asian cultures connect white with death and mourning.


The color white is truly a combination of all visible light wavelengths at full intensity. There are many methods to produce white light and white materials by combining primary colors of light, reflecting all wavelengths equally, removing color, and scattering light effectively. Our perception of white and whiteness also depends on visual effects, context, and cultural associations. True white retains its neutrality and purity by reflecting the full spectrum of light.