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Orange & Yellow

“Orange is a cheery antidote to the typically bland world of residential real estate,” says Eli Spevak ’93, owner of Orange Splot LLC in Portland, Ore. “It’s an artistic statement of freedom.”

Spevak’s firm has been building affordable homes with a focus on sustainability for 15 years. He loves warm colors, gravitating toward them to boost his spirits, so he plucked the name for his company from The Big Orange Splot by Daniel Pinkwater (note the colorful last name), “an awesome kid’s book that shows how a subversive splash of color on an unsuspecting house can inspire and transform a street.”

“Orange has always been about going against conformity,” he says. “I’d much rather have a city block with a mixture of aesthetics. Living in the Pacific Northwest is great, but the weather is often gray and dreary. Orange just makes me smile a little more.” —KC


Yellow powder the shade of a hard-boiled egg yolk fills a small vial in Swarthmore’s most colorful interdisciplinary lab, where art and science intersect. Made by combining potassium chromate and zinc chloride in solution—and then turning it basic—the pigment exudes a bright, cheerful hue when used in a painting.

At least, at first.

“Zinc yellow starts out a lemon color, then turns a greenish-brown over time,” says Therese Ton ’19, who researched and concocted the pigment as part of fall’s Art, Chemistry, and Conservation class, co-taught by chemistry’s Ginger Heck and art history’s Patricia Reilly. One infamous example of zinc yellow in decline: the pointillist masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte by Georges Seurat, whose sunny seaside hill has muddied over the past 130 years.

Certain other properties made zinc yellow a once-popular pigment, Ton notes: “It’s known to be anti-corrosive, so it was used as a primer on anything that covered metal—on the wheels of airplanes, in machinery, on cars. You know yellow Ford Mustangs? That’s the pigment. And if you mix it with black, you get Army green—the coating they used on military vehicles.”

But zinc yellow, she adds, has a major black mark: “It’s an antibacterial and nothing can grow on it, because it’s really toxic. They didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s a huge carcinogen—and a large number of factory workers came out with lung cancer.

“So, basically,” Ton says, “as a pigment, as an industry, zinc yellow is just not good.” —ES

PSSST … Color Is an Illusion

Perception is a tool that helps us decode what we see, and color is just one means of interpreting that information, according to Frank Durgin, the Elizabeth and Sumner Hayward Professor of Psychology and director of the Swarthmore Visual Perception Lab, where students use a virtual-reality system to study space perception.

“Color, as Isaac Newton noted, isn’t really in the light,” says Durgin. “Our experience is that we seem to simply see color, but it’s really much more like a construction of our minds.”

By “our” Durgin means trichromats: humans (and a handful of other primates) who have three types of receptor cones in the retina that are responsible for the perception of three colors.

“They are sensitive to overlapping distributions of long, medium, and short wavelengths of light all within a very narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum,” he says.

The colors we see can be understood as ratios of activity of these three cone receptor types. So, when short wavelengths are prevalent, we see blue.

“Although it horrifies a color scientist to label them this way, you could say that the short, medium, and long correspond to blue, green, and red, respectively,” Durgin says. “However, the light itself isn’t colored—we just see it that way.”

Then why can we organize colors into a wheel?

“From these three types of sensors, our minds can construct only a three-dimensional representation,” he says. “If our species had evolved to have more or fewer sensor types, our experience would be very different.”

How other animals see color is difficult to know, Durgin says: Most nonhumans have two cones versus three (some have 14!), “and we can’t talk to the animals about what surfaces look like to them. We can’t even be confident that each of us humans experience ‘red’ as the same color.” —KC


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