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What determines the color of an object quizlet?


The color we see an object as depends on a few different factors. The main ones are:

  • The color of light that shines on the object
  • The material and pigments that the object is made of
  • How the object’s surface interacts with light

So in summary, the color we see comes from a combination of the light source, the object’s makeup, and how its surface reflects and absorbs different wavelengths of light. Let’s explore each of these factors in more detail.

The Light Source

The first factor that determines an object’s apparent color is the color or wavelength makeup of the light that shines on it. Different light sources have different colors and wavelengths. For example:

  • Sunlight – Broad spectrum of wavelengths, including all colors of visible light
  • Incandescent bulbs – More yellow/reddish light
  • LEDs – Can vary depending on the type, some emit bluer light
  • Fluorescent bulbs – Bluer light than incandescent

So an object will appear to have different colors under different lighting conditions. Under bluer light it may look more blue, under yellower light it may look more red or orange. Our eyes and brain adjust to the color of the light source to some extent, so we are still able to perceive color fairly consistently. But the lighting does impact the fine details of how we see color.

Object Composition

The next factor is what material an object is made of and what pigments or dyes it contains. Pigments selectively absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect or transmit others. Different pigments and dyes absorb and reflect different wavelengths, producing different perceived colors.

For example:

  • A tomato appears red because it contains lycopene and other pigments that absorb blue and green light, while reflecting and transmitting more red.
  • Leaves appear green because they contain chlorophyll pigments that strongly absorb red and blue light, reflecting more green.
  • Ink and paints get their colors from pigments or dyes that selectively absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light.

So the makeup of the object itself, and specifically the pigments or colorants it contains, determines what wavelengths of light it will absorb vs. reflect/transmit. This causes it to appear a certain color.

Surface Interactions

The third factor is how an object’s surface interacts with light waves. There are several ways this can affect perceived color:

  • Glossiness/reflectivity – Smooth or glossy surfaces reflect light directly. This can enhance certain wavelengths, changing the perceived color.
  • Translucency – Some materials transmit some light through them, also affecting the color.
  • Opacity – Opaque objects don’t allow light transmission, resulting in different color effects.
  • Diffraction – Small surface structures can break up light into colors by diffraction, like a butterfly wing.
  • Thin film interference – Thin surface coatings can create interference effects, changing how colors are reflected.

So in summary, the physical structure and properties of an object’s surface impacts how the light interacts with it, also influencing what we see as the color.

Other Optical Effects

There are a few other more complex optical effects that can impact perceived color in some cases:

  • Fluorescence – Some materials absorb UV light and emit visible light, causing a glow effect.
  • Phosphorescence – Similar to fluorescence but with a longer-lasting afterglow.
  • Iridescence – Interference effects causing color changes with viewing angle.

While less common, these types of effects can result in unusual and dynamic color properties for some specialized materials and surfaces.

The Eye and Brain

As light enters our eyes, specialized cells called cones detect different wavelengths, essentially doing a form of “color sensing.” Our visual system transmits these signals to the brain where color perception happens. So the mechanics of eyesight and color vision in our brains are also important factors.

Interestingly, even the surrounding environment can influence how we perceive color thanks to comparative and relative color effects. For example, a gray object may look slightly red or green depending on the color of objects around it.

So in summary, the light, the object, and the observer all play roles in determining perceived color. It’s truly a complex interplay of physics, chemistry, biology, and environmental factors!


Let’s look at some examples to illustrate how these principles determine object color:

Example 1 – Red Apple

  • Light source – Broad spectrum white light, either sunlight or indoor lighting
  • Object composition – Apple skin contains anthocyanin pigments that reflect red and absorb other wavelengths
  • Surface interactions – Smooth, glossy skin reflects red strongly

Together these make the apple appear red. If we changed the light source, pigments, or surface texture, the color would change.

Example 2 – Blue Scope

  • Light source – Ambient white light
  • Object composition – Surface is coated with a thin transparent film
  • Surface interactions – Thin film creates interference effects, reflecting blue wavelengths

So the scope looks blue due to the thin film interference, not because of inherent pigments.

Example 3 – Butterfly Wing

  • Light source – Sunlight
  • Object composition – Transparent chitin makes up the wings
  • Surface interactions – Small structures diffract light into colors

The wings appear iridescent because the surface structures break up light by diffraction, not due to pigments.


Based on this information, here is a short quiz to test your knowledge:

Quiz Questions

  1. What property of sunlight causes it to make objects appear more vibrantly colored compared to indoor lighting?
    • a) High intensity
    • b) Broad spectrum
    • c) Low UV content
    • d) Polarization
  2. What is the main factor that makes leaves appear green?
    • a) Green dye in leaf cells
    • b) Chlorophyll pigment
    • c) Glossy wax surface
    • d) Translucent cuticle layer
  3. How does a butterfly wing’s surface structure create its iridescent color?
    • a) Pigments in the chitin
    • b) Diffraction from surface structures
    • c) Phosphorescence
    • d) Fluorescence
  4. Which factors affect how an object’s surface interacts with light?
    • a) Glossiness
    • b) Translucency
    • c) Diffraction
    • d) All of the above

Quiz Answers

  1. b) Broad spectrum
  2. b) Chlorophyll pigment
  3. b) Diffraction from surface structures
  4. d) All of the above

The broad spectrum of sunlight contains all wavelengths of light, allowing better color perception compared to indoor lighting which lacks some wavelengths. Chlorophyll in leaves absorbs red and blue light, causing them to appear green. Butterfly wing structures create diffraction effects resulting in iridescent colors. And glossiness, translucency, and diffraction all impact surface light interactions and color.


In summary, the primary factors that determine object color are:

  • Light source color and spectrum
  • Pigments and dyes in the material composition
  • Surface interactions with light such as reflection, diffraction, interference, etc.

Additionally, optical effects like fluorescence and the biology of human color vision also play a role. The color we perceive results from the complex interplay of the light, the object itself, and the observer. Gaining an understanding of the underlying principles helps explain why objects have the colors they do.


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  • Nassau, Kurt. The physics and chemistry of color: the fifteen causes of color. Vol. 4. New York: Wiley-Interscience, 1983.
  • Westland, Stephen, et al. Color physics for industry. Society of Dyers and Colourists, 2004.
  • Wyszecki, Günther, and W. S. Stiles. Color science: concepts and methods, quantitative data and formulae. John Wiley & Sons, 1982.