Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

Living Edition
| Editors: Renzo Shamey

Interactions of Color and Light

  • Ulrich BachmannEmail author
  • Ralf MichelEmail author
Living reference work entry

Latest version View entry history

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-27851-8_224-3



Color cannot be observed without light, and without material artifacts light is not visible – thus, one can simplify and say: no color exists without light and no light could be present without color. Color is a visual sensation that depends, among other factors, on stimulation of the visual system by radiation within the visible range – light – either emitted by a source or transmitted or reflected by pigmented objects. Indefectibly, light has color; there is no colorless light (light can be white, but white is also a color sensation). The chromatic composition of incident light affects the perceived color of pigmented surfaces. Color and light are like both sides of the same coin; they cannot be separated. For the creative disciplines involving design (design, interior design, scenography, architecture, etc.), the use of color and light and the knowledge about how one interacts and influences each other is a fundamental issue.

Interactions of Color and Light in the Context of Creative Training and Practices

Initial Position

In creative training and practices, the determining aspects of the interactions of color and light are generally not represented in a systematized manner. The present authors have responded to this shortcoming in collaboration with Florian Bachmann, Marcus Pericin [1], and others by examining the relevance of the interaction of color and light and by describing the aspects of it which are most important to creative training and practices. In addition, they use different approaches to exemplify the makings of a new teaching model.

Color cannot be observed without light, and without material artifacts light is not visible. Thus, one can simplify and say: no color without light and no light without color. For the creative disciplines, the use of color is one of the fundamental dimensions. And yet, despite the reciprocal interdependence of color and light, there has as yet been no comprehensive and systematizing concept for theory and creative practice.

Research on the Interactions of Color and Light in the Creative Disciplines

This entry is based on three research projects on the interactions of color and light which build upon each other’s findings: ColorLightLab, LED-ColorLab, and Colour and Light – Materials for a Theory of Colour and Light [2].

The research starts from the premise that design systems using color and light which are employed in design practice (and by analogy in interior design, lighting design, etc., as well) do not relate to each other. This despite the fact that material color cannot be perceived without light and that light cannot be seen in the absence of material artifacts. This shortcoming is reflected in the practice and methods of creative teaching. There is no theory which combines color and light in a systematic manner. The aim of the research was to pursue a practically oriented investigation of the principles involved in the interaction of color and light in terms of the requirements imposed by design and, in addition, to express research findings in practically relevant materials towards a color-light theory.


This project investigated the principles of the interactions of light and material color. The research was carried out using the methods of artistic research and research through design [3, 4, 5] and culminated in a presentation of the phenomena under investigation and the publication Colours Between Light and Darkness [6].


The focus was on an investigation of the interaction of dynamic light and colored surfaces in a spatial context. Here the interactions of dynamic light in the color spectrum were systematically observed, as were those in the spectrum of white light. The findings were presented in a laboratory display and evaluated in surveys with experts (architects, interior designers, designers, lighting designers, etc.) and with consumers. Approaches from the realm of research through design were combined with survey methods.

Colour and Light – Materials for a Theory of Colour and Light

Here the focus was on conveying the practical relevance of the previous findings. Materials for a theory of color and light (installations, digital and physical tools) were developed in an experimental context and evaluated by experts as well as school and university students (methods used were research through design as well as qualitative and quantitative surveys). These materials were summarized in a multimedia publication [7] which comprises: description of the installations, contextualization of practice, theory and research, compendium of a DVD with videos about the installations, a specifically developed software, and a relaunched website setting attitudes to the interaction of color and light in the context of historical systems of color.

The experiments and empirical investigations were set up on the basis of the following research questions:
  • How is the perception of color on surfaces and in spaces affected by lighting?

  • What effect does the physical composition of surfaces, materials, and spaces have on the perception of color under different lighting?

  • What interactions occur between dynamic light and colored surfaces?

  • How can one arrive at a comprehensible description of the interaction of dynamic light and colored surfaces?

  • What are the requirements to be met by materials and instruments used in a theory of color and light?

These questions derive from experiences gained in design practice and theory.

Summary of Investigations

First, models and prototypes were built, and several test measurements were carried out to compare the differentiation of various surfaces and various light sources; then a measuring system was constructed, where calibrated light falls on two precisely defined and identical surfaces in such a way that the remitting light can be measured by means of sensors. Thus, a kind of color-sampling booth (LED-ColorCase) was produced, enabling surface colors under different light sources to be visually compared and methodologically described. The LED-ColorCase makes it possible to record and evaluate hue shifts visually and in terms of spectral analysis. What is striking is the powerful influence of the light sources used on the difference of the resultant color effects. It was also possible to verify the possibility of calculating and predicting the resultant color impressions.

The experiments and laboratory investigations in the LED-ColorLab project showed that hue shifts develop a far greater differential under different light sources than was previously supposed and that they are clearly perceptible. In general terms one can say that the effect of and alteration caused by hue, saturation, and brightness is underestimated and generally not sufficiently taken into account in color and light design. In an ideal situation, it should be possible to give such alterations primacy during planning and to move towards predicting them.

Summary of Surveys and Empirical Aspect

The empirical aspect of the LED-ColorLab research project resulted in clear findings in terms of practical applicability. Surveys carried out during the LED – Staging Color and Light [8] exhibition (a public laboratory situation and part of the LED-ColorLab research project) showed that one can recognize the importance of the interactions of dynamic light (across the whole color spectrum but also dynamically in the white light spectrum from cool white to warm white): experts in the fields of architecture, interior design, design, and lighting design rate this potential highly in terms of their own creative practice. At the same time, the experts who were questioned demonstrated a lack of methodological and technical knowledge. End users questioned in the LED-ColorLab installations use recent lighting technology either as mood lighting or task lighting (this relates to LED). They rate highly the potential for integrated use of color and light in their personal environment and their place of work. Regarding the effects of the color shifts described above, acceptance is almost at 90% overall.

Similar results are seen in analysis of the responses to the research project Colour and Light – Materials for a Theory of Colour and Light, which took as its focus the development and evaluation. In the course of in-depth interviews and on the basis of surveys in the display of materials, 71% of the experts questioned acknowledged not only the quality of the materials produced but also the underlying approach towards a theory of color and light for creative practice.

Implementing Knowledge as Mediation Tools and Materials

The principles of interactions of dynamic light and colored surface were laid out in the multimedia publication Colour and Light: Materials for a Theory of Colour and Light [7]. Here the aspect of direct sensual perception is given especial prominence. The authors are convinced that a theory of light and color has a particularly strong influence on creative practice if it exploits direct sensual perception of the phenomena of the interactions of color and light. In this the authors are following, among other influences, the concept of the German philosopher Gernot Böhme who writes, using the argument of an aesthetic (a general theory of perception) about the effects of atmospheres: “the primary subject of sensual perception is not the things one perceives but what one feels: atmospheres” [9]. As a consequence, conclusions drawn from the creative experiments as well as experience gained from the installations and tools were used to develop elements of a didactic concept in which sensual perception of the phenomena of the interactions of color and light are linked to the direct experience of learners.

Selected Instruments of a Theory of Color and Light


The authors identify as installations such arrangements as permit different perceptual phenomena relating to color and light to be placed in a spatial context so that they can be experienced by the senses. They evolve from observations such as can also be made in everyday life. In contrast, the phenomena thus presented are detached from the context of their surroundings and then staged and varied spatially, such that these aspects, or some of them, can be perceived in isolation from it. In this process hue, saturation, and brightness of the colors observed are affected to varying degrees (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Color-light keyboard installation; project: staging LED-Color. It is a 25-m-long spatial installation, which consists of 15 large-scale wall panels painted on one side in the same gray and on the other with different, highly pigmented monochrome colors: white, gray, green, red, ultramarine, and black. The surfaces are illuminated with changing colored LED lighting according to an animated score of color and light. Because the installation can be entered on foot, the dynamic interactions of color and light can be directly experienced in a spatial context. In this way the installation points towards the great scenic and dramaturgical potential of such compositions of color and light for design and the performing arts


The term “tools” refers to materials which facilitate play-based and experimental access to various perceptual phenomena around light and color. These include physical as well as digital tools. They encourage independent or directed experimentation and thus facilitate the acquisition of experiential knowledge in individualized learning processes (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Color-light playground tool; project: Colour and Light – Materials for a Theory of Colour and Light. This tool stimulates experimentation with dynamically controlled LEDs and color-coated angled sheet metal which can be assembled in a variety of combinations of color and space. Hue, saturation, and brightness can be altered manually, enabling active experience of the interactions between surface colors and colored light

Color-Light Toy

The color-light toy is a virtual 3D environment where complex interactions of surface colors and light and various contrast effects can be simulated interactively (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

The color-light toy


The authors’ research demonstrates the lack of integrative principles and practices in the field of designing using color and light, especially in the context of architecture, interior architecture, design, and scenography. The research demonstrates the high degree of willingness to apply the phenomena of interaction of color and light professionally and as end users. The approach of implementing the abovementioned phenomena into a mediation concept which can be experienced and experimented on, and which is focused on aspects of direct and sensual perception, is being further developed by researchers into color and light at various institutions [10].



  1. 1.
    Colourlight-Center: Zurich University of the Arts. www.colourlight-center.ch (2013)
  2. 2.
    Research Projects at the Zurich University of the Arts: ColourLightLab, supported by SNF/DORE, Swiss National Science Foundation (2005–2006); LED-ColourLab supported by KTI, Swiss Commitee for Technology and Innovation (2008–2009); Colour and light – materials for a theory of colour and light, supported by SNF/DORE, Swiss National Science Foundation (2010–2011). www.colourandlight.ch and www.colourlight-center.ch
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  10. 10.
    Institute of Colour and Light, Zurich, www.colourandlight.ch; Institute Integrative Design, Academy of Art and Design Basel, www.masterstudiodesign.ch; Colourlight-Center, Zurich University of the Arts, www.colourlight-center.ch

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media LLC 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Colour and LightZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Institute Integrative Design | Master Studio DesignUniversity of Applied Sciences FHNW BaselBaselSwitzerland

Section editors and affiliations

  • Jose Luis Caivano
    • 1
  1. 1.Secretaria de Investigaciones FADU-UBAUniversidad de Buenos Aires and ConicetBuenos AiresArgentina