Is white a color, or is it something else? This age-old question has sparked a debate among color theory enthusiasts — mainly artists and designers with expertise in the color spectrum. Some agree that it is, while others disagree. But what’s the truth?
It technically aligns with the definition of color, but some people don’t think it counts because it doesn’t have its own hue or chroma.
The debate around the color is a real thing and has plenty of good points on both sides. Let’s explore what white really is in terms of color so you can answer the question for yourself.
White Throughout History
Cave drawings are the first signs of using white to make art. Early humans used chalk and calcite to create markings and pictures on walls. Eventually, the color was deemed sacred by Ancient Greeks and Romans, symbolizing light and prestige.
White also appeared in the 4th century B.C. per writings by Theophrast in “De Lapidibus.” People would dip lead bricks in vinegar for 10 days, at which point they scratched decay away from their surface. From there, people would pound the scrapings and strain them until they were left with white lead. Unfortunately, many came down with lead poisoning from this method.
White always carried religious connotations and became the mourning color of choice for widowers and those who’d lost their children. This was mainly due to white being the most affordable colored fabric.
Believe it or not, white wedding dresses didn’t come until much later. Always the trendsetter, Queen Victoria wore the first white wedding dress when she married Prince Albert in February 1840.
Other European brides and leaders followed suit. However, due to the high cost of constructing the gowns, women wore their wedding dresses many times throughout their lives. Eventually, white began representing purity, innocence, and affluence.
In modern history, white symbolizes simplicity and contemporary aesthetics. It also became the color of the 175-year-old women’s suffrage movement — a tradition that continues today.
What Is the Debate About?
The debate around whether white is a color stems from the fact that it doesn’t have a unique hue. It’s not on the color wheel and isn’t on the visible light spectrum, yet it still shows up. We can still see it because it’s a combination of each color’s wavelength.
Humans can see light with wavelengths of 380 to 750 nanometers (nm) — violet ranges from 380–450 nm while the rest of the color spectrum is between 590–750 nm. However, if we’re strictly sticking with visible wavelengths, we leave out white, black, pink and many others that fall out of range — more on that later.
While some think white is a color because it’s instantly recognizable and unique from more colorful hues, others feel it isn’t because it represents absence and negative space. Basically, if you define color by the above argument, then white does not technically fit the description. However, if you view it as all the ways we process light and dark, these outliers are indeed colors.
The debate is similar to the argument about whether water is wet or not — it’s primarily based on semantics. Still, there are solid arguments for both sides that have roots in psychology and science.
What’s the Psychology of the Color White?
Many people feel white isn’t a color because they think it represents nothing, but it has many emotional and psychological connections. For example, it can invoke feelings of innocence, coldness, purity, sterility, or peace. In graphic design, white often brings images of happiness, cleanliness, or safety to mind.
You’ve heard of a “blank slate” — the opportunity for a do-over. Some regard white as a new beginning to release themselves from past actions and negativity. It also represents open-mindedness, allowing space to imagine whatever you want to create.
Some of the confusion might come from the fact that people use white as a base. It goes well with everything because it’s neutral, so it’s often the starting point for designs and text. Since people view a blank canvas as empty and think of coloring as adding something new, it makes a connection in their minds that white isn’t a color.
What’s the Science of the Color White?
As mentioned previously, the science behind white involves looking at the wavelengths of colors. Red, green, and blue light combine to form white. People who feel it isn’t a color use this to argue their point, claiming it technically can’t be one because it isn’t its own hue on the visible light spectrum.
While that logic seems reasonable, it overlooks a crucial point. Remember how we said we can see colors that are not on the wavelength spectrum? Red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, indigo, and violet are the only colors on the color wheel, which leaves out white, black, gray, brown, and magenta.
Red and violet are at opposite ends of the spectrum, so the brain glitches and sees pink even though green is the average. It’s not really a “real” color — it’s simply what happens to the human mind when it mixes specific wavelengths. With that knowledge, would you declare that it is no longer a color?
Additionally, people experience color as a visual sensation in their minds. There is a distinct reaction that happens when they view white because they recognize that it is unique. While it’s true that it is only a combination of every hue’s wavelength, perceiving something and getting a particular mental response is the very definition of color.
On the other hand, it provides very little mental or visual simulation in comparison to things like red, yellow, blue, or violet. They each have strong emotional and behavioral connections in a way that white doesn’t. Because of this, most people think of negative space when they see it. It blends into the background and supports other hues instead of standing out.
Is White A Color or a Shade?
Some people argue white is a shade instead of a color because it simply augments other colors — it turns pure colors into tints, making them pale.
So, is white a color or a shade? We’re glad you asked. Color is a hue first, which can appear more saturated — when the color quality intensifies or loses its richness as you add white or black.
Conversely, a shade is a color in its initial hue that has undergone darkening — usually with black. You never add white or gray to create a shade. Therefore, it is safe to say white is a color — mixing a color with white will always change the saturation of whatever hue you add.
However, that point only considers how it affects other hues. The root of the debate is about whether white is a standalone color, so there’s not much point in bringing up shades or tints. While they exist, they’re not very relevant to the main argument.
Even though it may still be up for debate whether white is a color or not, its ability to lighten doesn’t change how the human mind reacts to it. If anything, the point muddies the waters even more because off-white swatches are a very real thing. How pale does something have to be before it counts as white? It’s challenging to say.
Do Variations of White Count as Colors?
Speaking of shades, a pure white living room could feel somewhat sterile. Thankfully, you have the option to paint the room a toned-down white for warmth. But do these variations of white count as colors, or are the different “whites” simply hues that started as a bold color and undergone saturation?
White has various shades and tones that make it look different, so they might count as colors. Many are merely incredibly light versions of hues. Common variations are eggshell, ivory, snow, cream, cotton, and porcelain. Some are bright and bold, while others are soft and subtle.
They fall into two different categories depending on what their undertone is. Warm whites usually appear slightly tan, while cool whites often have a blue-gray look to them. However, there are millions of possible swatches since any color can look white if it’s light enough.
One kind — true white — doesn’t have any undertones. It is actually one of the most common website background colors because it’s so clean and striking. Other hues tend to look more vibrant when they have space to show off. Essentially, it’s the brightest version of the color.
Still, even that is up for debate because its pureness depends significantly on how much light bounces off it. For instance, scientists at Purdue University only recently developed a version in April 2023 that reflects over 98% of light, making it the world’s whitest color.
While it’s useful, it can be incredibly overpowering to look at and seem blinding because it reflects so much light. Plus, it is particularly challenging to achieve true white, so most variations are basically extremely pale versions of regular colors. The semantics get somewhat complex at this point in the debate.
If a very light pink that appears white counts as a color, then does white count as one, too, when it has a subtle undertone? While there’s no right answer, it lends to the argument that white is its own color.
Is White a Color or Not?
Now that you’ve considered the science, psychology, and variations of white, what do you believe? Is white a color or not? The evidence is strong for both sides of the debate, which may not give you the definitive answer you’re looking for. So, let’s recap.
While white doesn’t have its own hue on the visible light spectrum, many consider it to be a color because it’s instantly recognizable as a separate, unique color. People believe it is devoid of colors, but the opposite is true — black is the absence of color, while white is basically a combination of them all.
Some people argue that it isn’t because it isn’t on the color wheel or visible light spectrum, while others feel that it is because it’s plainly visible and has an entirely different look than any of the shades of the rainbow. Both points are based on a lot of technicalities — and herein lies the challenges of coming up with a correct answer. You wouldn’t be wrong to think of white as a color or not.
Pick Your Side
The word “color” encapsulates many different things. Do people use it when they actually mean to say “pigment” or “light radiation” instead? If so, does it matter? In most cases, the answer is no. In that case, is white a color? Whether or not white counts as one may always be up for debate. It’s an argument based on technicalities — meaning you’re more or less correct no matter which side you choose.
About The Author
Eleanor Hecks is the Editor-in-Chief of Designerly Magazine, an online publication dedicated to providing in-depth content from the design and marketing industries. When she's not designing or writing code, you can find her re-reading the Harry Potter series, burning calories at a local Zumba class, or hanging out with her dogs, Bear and Lucy.