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What is this color or what color is this?

Colors are a fundamental part of our daily lives. We are surrounded by colors from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. Colors influence our moods, emotions, and behaviors in ways we often don’t realize. Understanding colors is important for artists, designers, marketers, and anyone looking to use color effectively. In this in-depth guide, we will examine the science, psychology, and terminology behind colors to help you answer the question “what color is this?” for any shade you encounter.

The Basics of Color Science and Vision

Before diving into individual colors, it’s helpful to understand some basic principles of color science and vision. Our experience of color is shaped by the physics of light as well as the biology of our eyes and brains. Here are some key facts about color:

  • Light visible to humans is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It includes wavelengths from about 380 to 740 nanometers.
  • Different wavelengths of light appear as different colors. Red has the longest wavelengths while violet has the shortest.
  • An object appears a certain color because it reflects or emits specific wavelengths of light. All other wavelengths are absorbed.
  • The human eye has receptors called cones that respond to red, green, and blue light. The brain combines input from the cones to produce all the colors we see.
  • Shade, tint, and tone refer to variations in color lightness or saturation.

Understanding the physics and biology behind color starts to shed light on why we perceive colors the way we do. Next let’s look at key terminology used in color analysis.

Important Color Terminology

When trying to identify or describe a color, using precise terminology can help narrow down the exact shade or hue. Here are some important terms to know:

Term Definition
Hue The dominant wavelength that characterizes a color, such as red, orange, or green
Primary colors The three main hues (red, yellow, blue) that can be mixed to create all other colors
Secondary colors Colors created by mixing two primary colors, such as purple, orange, and green
Tertiary colors Colors made by mixing a primary and secondary color, like red-orange or blue-green
Value The lightness or darkness of a color
Saturation The intensity or purity of a color, how vivid or dull it is
Shade A color with black added to darken it
Tint A color with white added to lighten it
Tone A color with gray added to make it more neutral

These key terms help us identify the specific attributes that define a particular color. With a vocabulary to work with, let’s examine some of the primary, secondary, and tertiary colors and their unique traits.

Primary Colors

The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. These hues can’t be created by mixing other colors, but by combining them we can generate all other shades in the visible spectrum. Here’s an overview of the main characteristics of each primary:


  • Longest visible wavelength, around 700 nanometers
  • Appears vivid and intense, even at low saturation
  • Psychologically linked to energy, passion, aggression, excitement
  • Common shades: Crimson, burgundy, scarlet, maroon, ruby
  • When mixed with blue makes purple; mixed with yellow makes orange


  • Middle visible wavelength, around 580 nanometers
  • Very light, luminous color
  • Psychologically connected to happiness, optimism, idealism
  • Common shades: Lemon, mustard, gold, amber
  • When mixed with red makes orange; mixed with blue makes green


  • Shortest visible wavelength, around 450 nanometers
  • One of the most commonly preferred colors
  • Psychologically linked to calmness, stability, productivity
  • Common shades: Royal, navy, aqua, teal, azure
  • When mixed with red makes purple; mixed with yellow makes green

The key traits of the primary colors provide the foundation for creating and evaluating other hues.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are made by mixing two primary colors in equal proportions. The three secondary colors are purple, orange, and green.


  • Combines the passion of red and calm of blue
  • Many shades depending on red vs blue dominance
  • Psychologically associated with luxury, creativity, magic, mystery
  • Common shades: Violet, indigo, lavender, lilac, magenta


  • Combines the energy of red and joy of yellow
  • Many shades depending on red vs yellow dominance
  • Psychologically linked to enthusiasm, adventure, determination
  • Common shades: Amber, peach, coral, pumpkin, bronze


  • Combines the harmony of yellow and calm of blue
  • Many shades depending on yellow vs blue dominance
  • Psychologically associated with balance, growth, health, resilience
  • Common shades: Emerald, mint, sage, olive, jade

Looking at secondary colors gives us even more variety to work with in identifying and using colors.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are made by mixing a primary and secondary color. There are six main tertiary colors: red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-purple, and red-purple.

Here is an overview of some characteristics of tertiary colors:

Color Attributes
Red-orange Vibrant, energetic, warm, tropical
Yellow-orange Playful, cheerful, luminous
Yellow-green Bright, fresh, natural, environmental
Blue-green Soothing, cool, balanced, watery
Blue-purple Mysterious, spiritual, contemplative
Red-purple Dramatic, regal, luxurious

Tertiary colors give us even more nuanced hues for identification and use.

Non-spectral Colors

All the colors discussed so far can be found in the visible light spectrum. Non-spectral colors are hues that are produced by our eyes and brain but don’t correspond to any single wavelength of light. The two main categories are brown and pink.


  • Made by combining multiple spectral colors like red, yellow, orange
  • Earthy, grounded, natural, rugged
  • Common shades: Taupe, beige, mahogany, chocolate, cinnamon


  • Made by combining red and white tints
  • Playful, feminine, romantic, charming
  • Common shades: Baby, coral, rose, fuschia

Browns and pinks demonstrate that a color doesn’t have to occupy a specific point in the spectrum for us to see and experience it.

Using Color Names and Codes

In addition to descriptive terms, specific color names and code systems can help identify particular shades. Some examples include:

  • Vocabulary terms – Crimson, aquamarine, mustard
  • Crayola colors – Atomic tangerine, timberwolf
  • Pantone colors – Bright turquoise, mint green
  • HTML colors – Hexadecimal codes like #FF5733
  • RGB values – rgb(34, 212, 52)
  • CMYK values – 80% cyan, 25% magenta
  • Munsell system – 7.5R 5/10

Matching a color to a known vocabulary name, branded color, or numeric code helps answer “what color is this?” in definitive terms.

Psychology and Symbolism of Colors

In addition to their scientific properties, colors also carry psychological and symbolic meanings in various cultures. Being aware of these associations can help inform effective and appropriate color choices.

Color Psychology & Symbolism
Red Energy, passion, aggression, urgency, seduction, revenge
Orange Enthusiasm, adventure, vibrancy, creativity, determination
Yellow Happiness, optimism, idealism, positivity, clarity
Green Growth, freshness, health, wealth, prosperity, envy, envy
Blue Calm, loyalty, trust, stability, wisdom, melancholy
Purple Luxury, creativity, sophistication, mystery, spirituality, royalty
Black Power, intensity, death, elegance, sophistication, formality
White Purity, innocence, peace, simplicity, sterility

Being mindful of these associations, along with cultural variations, helps pick colors tailored to context.

Tools for Identifying Unknown Colors

When you encounter a color in the real world and aren’t sure exactly what to call it, there are some helpful tools for identifying the exact shade:

  • Color identification apps – Apps like Nix Sensor and Color Grab can sample colors from real objects and provide hex codes and names.
  • Color matching charts – Pantone, RAL, and other color system chips to manually match against.
  • Color pickers – Eyedropper tools built into image editors and design programs for sampling colors on screen.
  • Spectrophotometers – Devices that measure a color’s precise spectral reflectance and wavelength.
  • Online color identifiers – Websites where you input RGB/Hex values to get color names.

Leveraging tools like these helps accurately identify any color you want to know the name or code for.


Determining color names and properties involves physics, biology, language, culture, and psychology. This guide covers the key principles, terminology, shades, codes, meanings, and identification tools for answering “what color is this?” in any situation. Whether you’re an artist mixing paints, designer selecting palettes, or simply curious about the colors around you, the information presented here equips you with valuable knowledge. Next time you encounter an unknown color, refer to this reference to help confidently determine exactly what color it is.