The world is full of colors and shades. We often do not think about them, but simply experience them. I came across an interesting article, “Magenta, the color that doesn't exist and why” which claims that this color is an illusion.
“First and foremost, it is important to recognize that the color magenta is only an illusion created by our eyes. This color, a mixture of violet, red, and crimson, is very unique in that it does not appear in the visible light spectrum and lacks the wavelength to match that specific color,” the article states.
This is both true and false. Magenta does exist, but it is not a color of the spectrum.
It's a color that has equal parts red and blue light, and we actually describe it as somewhere between purple and pink. Magenta itself is complicated and comes in many shades, forms that we call magenta, some closer to purple, some closer to the “cyclamen” color, but generally, it's shades of purple or shades of pink.
They will tell me that there is no such thing as magenta!
Magenta is not a spectral, but an extraspectral color : it cannot be generated by light of a single wavelength. It is also not a primary color (primaries in RGB – red, green and blue), and it absorbs green wavelengths, which means that green is complementary to it.
All this means that there is no wavelength for magenta. For example, blue ranges from 450 to 495 nanometers, red is around 700 nm, and violet is around 380 nm.
Spectral color is the color caused by monochromatic light, i.e. one wavelength of light in the visible spectrum or a relatively narrow band of wavelengths (for example, laser light). Essentially, they are the colors of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet/magenta/indigo. Extraspectral colors are not related to the monochromatic visible spectrum.
What is important to understand is that colors are not just what exists in the spectrum as pure colors, i.e. certain wavelengths. As light falls on an object, some wavelengths are absorbed and some are reflected. Those that are reflected, we see as color. But if more of them are rejected, we get a mixture. Then, the experience of color also depends on the lighting, that is, the amount of darkness and light, black and white.
By the way, magenta was one of the first synthetic, aniline dyes, synthesized shortly after the battle of the Italian city of Magenta (1859) during the Second Italian War of Independence between Italy and Austria-Hungary. The color was originally called fuchsia or roseine, but for marketing purposes in 1860, the name of the color was changed to magenta after the battle.
So how do we see magenta?
In our retina, we have three types of cells – receptors that respond to colors – these are cones sensitive to red, green and blue light (just like the RGB system). But, they are not only sensitive to these colors, they respond to the entire range of wavelengths and their “interferences” overlap somewhat, and this is how we feel other colors as well.
When the cones for blue and red light are activated, our brain interprets it as magenta. Magenta is simply the way our brain processes certain things.
And that's great. Because it's really great that we can see such a joyful color. Imagine a world without shades of magenta.
Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.