Shades and Tones of Purple and Mauve
Frequently in opinion polls, the colour purple is rated as one of the most popular of all hues. It can be deep and luxurious in tone, and indeed for more than a thousand years was considered to be the most imperial of colours - a colour which signified in a very real sense, great affluence and power. And yet in its many pastel forms of mauve, this can also be a subtle and calming hue, as evidenced by some of our best loved flowers.
In a series of pages, I am looking at all the different colours we know and love, and how these can all be created using just the three primary colours of light - red, green and blue. In this page I concentrate on the colour purple in all its manifestations, I look at the varied tones of mauve, and the flowers which display them to best effect, such as orchid and lavender and lilac. I look at the history and origins of purple in Roman times. And I look at two special spectral colours, indigo and violet.
- This series of pages is entitled 'Shades and Tones of Colour'. Three other pages have so far been completed. There is also a home page to this series which is referenced below. Links to other pages in the series can be found towards the foot of this page.
Unless otherwise indicated, all images on this page have been created by the author using 'Paint' or 'Photoshop' programmes. All can be generated in a matter of seconds
NAMING OF PURPLE AND MAUVE HUES
Some tones and shades of purple and mauve of course do have very specific names, because they can be likened to the colour of an object (usually a flower) of which we are all familiar. The very best known of the purplish and mauvish hues, including violet and indigo, orchid and plum, lavender and lilac, will be considered in their own separate sections, and will be illustrated with the nearest approximations of these colours. In these sections I shall also describe their history and their colour composition.
A number of other colours will be grouped together under the titles 'SHADES OF PURPLE' and 'TONES OF PURPLE', and a variety of lighter hues will be grouped together under the title 'SHADES OF MAUVE', and in these sections the emphasis will be on showing how changes in the intensities and the proportions of red and blue light, or the introduction of green light, may alter the final hue quite appreciably.
A CONFUSION OF COLOURS
Unfortunately there are considerable difficulties with laying down hard and fast rules for colour shades. For a start, different colour processes will create shades which just don't match exactly. A good example of this is the matching of shades produced by light in visual display units, (typically the RGB model described below) to the shades produced by ink on paper (typically the CMYK model). Different monitors, different printers and different inks also vary in the colour rendition they produce. What's more, anyone can name a colour whatever they like, and particular shades may be given one name by, for example, one paint manufacturer, and quite a different name by another. The same name may also be applied to different shades or tones.
For example, the term 'amethyst' may be used for one shade by one authority, whilst another may use an entirely different name, or they may apply amethyst to a subtly different tone (Not perhaps too surprising as amethysts themselves vary greatly in tone). In this short page, only one method of creating colour is used, and this will be the RGB system as readers will be viewing on a visual display unit. Hopefully colour reproduction will be faithful on the monitor you are using.
Shades and Tones of Colour - Colour Creation using the RGB Code, CYMK, Pigments and Dyes
This is the Home Page for this 'Shades and Tones' series. On this page I explain the spectrum of light, and the history of colour production using pigments. I also describe in more detail the RGB system, and I explain much of the colour coding used in this series. I also look at colour charts and how the names of colours may vary with different sources. Finally I explain the terminology of shades and tones.
LIMITATIONS OF THIS PAGE
On this page I can only give the briefest of explanations of the RGB system and the colour codes which are employed as an integral part of describing how the different shades and tones of Purple and Mauve are produced.
If you wish to understand exactly how the huge range of different intensities of red, blue and green light may be manipulated to produce all different colours in a visual display unit, I refer you to my Home Page opposite. My thanks.
This 'Shades Of' page is for Jo Evans, a friend and frequent reader of these pages, because she likes the colour purple. Not sure though which shade of purple she likes, or whether she likes them all equally, or some more than others. Or maybe it's really a mauve tone she likes? Or violet? Or possibly magenta, which I would say isn't really purple at all? Maybe she'll tell me after she reads this page. Whatever, I hope she likes the page.
CREATION OF PURPLE AND MAUVE USING THE RGB COLOUR MODEL
Visible light is effectively a continuous band or spectrum of electromagnetic wavelengths which we perceive as different colours. In the RGB colour creation method, it has been found that by combining emissions of just three of these wavelengths - those of Red and Green and Blue (RGB) - in different proportions, and different intensities, all the thousands of tones and shades that we can distinguish with the human eye, can be created.
So in visual display units which use RGB, thousands of pixels are utilised in which red, green and blue light can each be emitted at different intensities to create all these colours - we of course can not detect the individual pixels; we just perceive as a new tone or shade, the end product of the proportions of red, green and blue light emitted.
In my pages the proportions of red, green and blue in the finished tone is described by the percentage intensity of each colour in the final tone. Under this system, maximum intensity of each wavelength is 100% and minimum intensity is 0%. The higher the intensity of light makes the finished colour lighter and brighter, whilst lower intensities of colour makes the final colour darker. Purple is essentially the result of combining the two primary colours red and blue and varying the proportions will vary the tone of purple produced.
Under this coding system, these are a few selected values, and how we perceive them:
- 0% (R) : 0% (G) : 0% (B) - A total absence of any light is BLACK
- 100% (R) : 100% (G) : 100% (B) - Combined emission of maximum intensity red, green and blue light is WHITE
- 100% (R) : 0% (G) : 0% (B) - This will be the BRIGHTEST PURE RED
- 0% (R) : 0% (G) : 100% (B) - This will be the BRIGHTEST PURE BLUE
These examples are clear enough, but as soon as the proportions of red and blue light are varied, or some green light is added to the mix, so a whole vast range of tones can be created. The introduction of green light may give the final hue a slightly greyish tone, but as the contribution of all three primary colours increases, so the shade gets lighter and lighter as we move closer to the pure white of 100% red, 100% green and 100% blue. So when both red and blue light are of high intensity, and green light is also of significant intensity, the resultant range of colours are rather lighter than purple and may generically be described as mauve. I have used percentages of RGB intensity which seem to me to give the colour rendition which is most closely associated with a particular tone. It is by no means definitive, but I think that these descriptions of shade and tone could be generally accepted.
Before we commence the discussion of hues which all can agree are shades and tones of purple and mauve, I think we should discuss Magenta. If purples are defined simply as combinations of predominantly red and blue light, then strictly speaking Magenta could be considered a shade of purple. Magenta in the RGB system is composed of pixels emitting maximum intensity of both red and blue light. However, this renders the final shade as very bright and light, and irrespective of the two component colours, I would suggest most would consider Magenta to be rather closer to a deep bright pink, than to purple. Magenta is also one of the primary colours of ink in the CMYK colour model, and although this ink is rather different in tone from the hue created in the RGB system, it still approximates more to an idea of pink than to purple. A typical approximation of CMYK Magenta ink (AKA Printer's Magenta) is shown here with RGB Magenta for comparison.
SHADES OF PURPLE
Having considered Magenta, we will now look at three shades which - like Magenta - comprise equal proportions of red and blue light, but at reduced intensities of emission. This reduction in intensity means that the resultant shade is rather darker. These shades therefore, very definitely fall into the realm of the purples.
The purpose of this section is not to name different shades of purple, but rather it is to demonstrate how subtle changes in the intensity of red and blue light can radically change the end hue.
'Purple' comes from the Latin 'purpura' and referred originally to a dye made from the mucus of the Murex brandaris snail, (the Spiny Dye-Murex), and other related marine species. Extraction of this dye dates back c2000 BC to the Phoenician civilisation. Because of the difficulty of processing quantities of this dye, Purple was extremely expensive, and indeed in ancient times usage was largely confined to the affluent and powerful - hence the association of Purple with royalty and the robes of Roman emperors. Even for such people however, the dye was almost prohibitively expensive - The Roman Emperor Aurelian apparently refused his wife some Purple garments due to the cost! The colour obtained from these snail secretions was known as Tyrian Purple, and was rather more reddish than Purple as we know it today, more akin to Burgundy. The Reddish Purple shown below is the closest approximation on this page. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Purple also declined significantly.
TONES OF PURPLE
In this section we look at two tones of purple in which intensities of red and blue emission are approximately those of Mid-Purple as illustrated above (between 45% and 55%). However, the proportions of red and blue emission are slightly different.
So again the purpose of this section is not to name different tones of purple, but rather it is to demonstrate how subtle changes in the proportions of red and blue light can change the end hue.
MEDIEVAL AND MODERN PURPLE
The word 'Purple' first appeared in English in 975 AD. For many centuries, production of Purple remained small scale due to the difficulty of obtaining the dye. The process was also pretty disgusting! It involved rotting the flesh of various sea snails in urine for several days, mixing it in a barrel treading it underfoot - the smell must have been overpowering. Cheaper vegetable dyes were available, though rotten snail secretions remained the luxury option! In the 15th century, Purple was largely replaced as the colour of prestige and power by cardinal, crimson and scarlet reds obtained from crushed insects. It was not until the 19th century that synthetic Purple dyes began to be introduced - notably mauveine, described below - and with today's chemical industry of course, there is no special luxury connected to the processing of any colour. Yet even today in many peoples' eyes, the colour Purple retains a regal bearing.
THE SPECTRAL PURPLES
The visible spectrum of light as we perceive it in nature is a small band of wavelengths within the vast spectrum of ectromagnetic radiation which includes radio and microwaves, gamma and X-rays. And the most famous manifestation of this visible spectrum is the rainbow, which our eyes and brains traditionally delineate into seven bands of gradually changing colour. It was Isaac Newton who first categorised the colours of the visible spectrum as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet in sequence according to their wavelengths.
It is immediately apparent that red does not lie adjacent to blue in the visible spectrum, and therefore there is no band of wavelengths which equates as an intermediary between red and blue, as we would understand purple to be. Therefore almost all of the shades and tones described here are for the most part 'extra-spectral' colours - that is to say - they do not exist naturally in the spectrum. They can only be created by combining relatively long wave red light and relatively short wave blue light, either directly or in pigments and dyes.
Two colours are different however. Indigo and Violet may be considered as tones related to purple, yet these are spectral colours represented by specific wavebands of visible light, and they are of even shorter wavelength than blue light. (Of course in the RGB system which only utilises the wavelengths of red, green and blue, even Indigo and Violet must be artificially created as accurately as possible by combining red and blue light, and these are described next).
Indigo is traditionally regarded as one of the seven colours of the rainbow, lying between blue and violet, and therefore the colour Indigo is regarded as being a very bluish purple or bluish violet. In the visible spectrum, Indigo represents wavelengths of about 420-460nm in length. There is actually evidence that Isaac Newton himself interpreted the spectrum somewhat differently to modern thinking, and perhaps his 'blue' referred to a cyan tone of light green-blue, and his 'Indigo' referred to a tone we would describe as dark blue. Certainly there are different representations of Indigo in pigment and in RGB colours, and many may regard the tone depicted here as dark blue rather than purple.
Originally the colour Indigo as a dye was obtained from the plant Indigofere tinctoria, and was first recorded in the English language in the 13th century.
In the traditional rainbow spectrum, Violet is the final colour beyond Blue and Indigo, and has a wavelength of about 380-420nm. In terms of pigment production, and RGB light emissions, Violet - like all the colour tones on this page - is a combination of blue and red, but with blue in the ascendency, though again there are different interpretations as to the precise tone of violet. In the illustration shown here, the best representation utilises 50-60% intensity red light and 80-90% intensity blue light.
How best to represent Violet? Well of course the name for this colour derives from flowers of the genus Viola. Even wild violets will vary greatly in deepness of shade according to the species, but here is where one should look for the truest representation of the colour.
All of the colours so far illustrated on this page show tones created purely from the two primary colours red and blue. All the remaining colours are created by adding varying intensities of green light in the mix.
The tone illustrated here is the best representation of the colour known as Orchid. 'Orchid' of course comes from the flower of the same name, though there are many thousands of species of orchids and a large proportion of these are purplish in colour, Many of the species and cultivated hybrids are similar in tone to that illustrated here, rendered slightly more pinkish reddish than the Violet tone above, because the intensity of red is slightly higher. Orchid was first used as a colour tonal name in 1915.
First used as a colour name in 1805, Plum of course refers to the colour of the fruit of the same name, and the tone which represents this colour is shown opposite. It can immediately be seen from the RGB code that there is proportionately less blue in the mix than in Orchid or other colours so far illustrated. Plum is similar to many of the more reddish shades of purple, but with a slight yet distinct greyish tinge due to the introduction of some green.
LAVENDER AND AMETHYST
We now move on to shades which are rather paler than traditional purples, and indeed all the remaining colours could be considered as mauves. Two which are fairly similar in tone to each other, are Lavender and Amethyst. Lavender of course is named for the flower and Amethyst is named for the semi-precious stone. Of course these days hybrid lavenders are available in a range of shades and amethyst stones are of a range of shades according to the degree of impurity which creates the colour.
In both these, there is more blue light than red, and so a bluish colour predominates. The intensity and proportions of red and blue light are indeed similar to those of Violet, but the overall colour is rather paler than any we have looked at so far. How is this so? the answer lies in the increasing level of green light in the final hue. In Violet there is no green contribution to the RGB model, but we are now seeing 40%+ intensity of green light, and as we have seen, increasing the intensity of all three components of RGB light makes the shade paler and moves us closer to white.
In this section we see an escalation in the intensity of green light to 60%, and this - together with higher intensities of red and blue light - creates the palest shade so far. We can call this tone Lilac. Lilac is yet another tone named for a flower which typically displays this colour in its petals (though of course the Lilac Tree Syringa vulgaris is now available in many varieties - some darker and some lighter than traditional Lilac). Lilac was first used as a colour name in 1775.
SHADES OF MAUVE
Although there is no clear definition of colour ranges, I think most readers would regard darker tones of red-blue as being purple, and lighter shades as being Mauve. Lavender, Amethyst and Lilac could all be considered as types of Mauve, but in this section the term Mauve is used for a variety of non-specific tones characterised by quite high intensities of green light in the final mix. As a result, these tones tend to be rather greyer and/or paler than those mentioned previously on this page.
The colour is named after the French for mallow (another flower), and has been variously described as a pale Lavender or a bluish pink.
Mauve was first extracted in 1856 by the chemist William Henry Perkin as a by-product residue whilst attempting to create artificial quinine, an antimalarial drug. The residue was initially called mauveine, but this was soon shortened to Mauve. The commercial prospects of this pale purplish substance were soon recognised, and Mauve became one of the first synthetic dyes. Interestingly, the colour Mauve as understood today is lighter than Perkin's initial mauveine, because the pigment he discovered faded rapidly.
Shades of purple have been among the most potent of all colours throughout history for as far into the past as one cares to look, even to the Roman Emperors in their purple robes. The colour has all the richness of bright reds and yellows, but is a little less 'in your face' and 'gaudy'. Purple and mauve include many shades and tones associated with some of our best loved flowers and other natural sights, and as such have a special place in the affections of many.
JUST FOR FUN - WHICH IS YOUR FAVOURITE PURPLE ?
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LINKS TO MY OTHER 'SHADES OF' PAGES
- Shades and Tones of Colour - Colour Creation
Home page to my 'shades and tones series' describing the nature of the visible spectrum, and how colour can be created
We have many words in English for different shades of red - scarlet, ruby, crimson, cerise, and so on. But what are all these shades? And where do these evocative names come from?
Green is perhaps the most tranquil, most passive, and the easiest on the eye of the three primary colours of light. In this page I look at shades of green in the RGB colour system
- Yellow and Orange
Of all the spectral colours, yellow and orange are two of the most vivid. How can these two bright colours be created, and what is their history?
- Grey, White and Black
This page looks at the creation of the colour grey (gray) in electronic devices. What exactly is grey? And its associated hues of black and white? Are they true colours? Or shades? Or what?
Please feel free to quote limited text from this article on condition that an active link back to this page is included.