How Fireworks Produce Color

This article was first published last July, 2010, but after colleague Kelly retweeted it today, I thought, "great idea! Let's bring it back for this year."

With 4th of July just around the corner, we're all intent upon nailing down the best spot for the most impressive fireworks display. (FYI- I have heard Boston's show is amazing)

But how do we get all those amazing colors in every burst of light?

A little background...Visible light of different wavelengths is detected by our eyes as a range of colors. Of the light that we can see, violet has the shortest wavelength and red has the longest.

Wavelengths of light corresponding to different colors

Fireworks generate light and color due to the physical and chemical attributes of specific compounds. When these compounds are heated and combusted they give out energy, some of which may coincide with the wavelengths in the visual region of the spectrum.
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The mixture of specific chemicals can produce different colored fire. 
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To make fireworks colorful, metal salts are added to the basic oxidant fuel mix concoction. For example, if you put a piece of copper into a fire you see it glow with a blue flame.
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The amount of energy released, which varies from element to element, is characterized by a particular wavelength of light.
  • Strontium or carbonate salts (longest wavelength and lower energies) = red flame
  • Copper oxychloride (much shorter wavelength and higher energies) = blue flame
  • Barium nitrate = green flame
  • sodium salts = yellow flame
  • charcoal or other forms of carbon = orange flame
With those metal salts, pyrotechnicians have a whole spectrum of colors at their disposal. If no salts were added, the fireworks would simply reflect all the colors in the visible spectrum. In other words, white.
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Pyro-technicians say the sign of a very good firework-maker is a really good strong blue. The reason blue is so challenging is because copper compounds can be unstable at high temperature.
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Where are we headed with fireworks colors; are turquoise and fuchsia fireworks in our future? Dr. John Conkling, professor of chemistry and a past executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association, gives us some idea.
"We can usually make a pretty deep red, a nice green, a reasonable blue. Now, if you start to combine the red and the blue, you get violet, lilac, purple. There's interest in being able to make lime-green, a beautiful orange, and so on. That takes a real careful mixing of color technology. We keep getting better and better. As research continues, we're still making advancements...I see no reason why there should be much limitation on the colors we see. It's just a question of R&D (research and development) effort as well as demand.
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 It's usually driven from the entertainment side. A theme park may want a very specific effect for a show they're doing, and they'll say "Give me lime-green." Once a company starts to develop a lime-green, they start thinking, well, we have this new color, let's find some other customers who would like to have it as well." (source)
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Test your fireworks knowledge with this fun set of quizzes. First review the chart, then see how many types you can accurately label.
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Want to learn more about the anatomy of a firework? Great site for the low-down on the sky-high kabooms.  I know I know, cheesy. But I couldn't help myself...

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Color Outlook- a new twist on trends

It's finally live! That secret venture I alluded to before has launched, and now I can gush all about it.
This article below was originally slated to be published in a magazine, but at the last moment, got cut. So the tone is a bit more formal than you're used to from me. But first, an admission.

I approach color trends with a healthy skepticism. Really, it’s more of a frustration with the disparity between predicted color forecasts and concrete, useful color information. No one wants to coat his or her walls in Honeysuckle Pink … they just don’t.

With this in mind, I recently joined forces with five design colleagues, representing key regions from coast to coast, to start a new venture called Color Outlook™. We are producing quarterly podcasts offering an alternative solution to traditional forecasting. Our ultimate goal is to present what’s hot in color -right now- from design experts dealing with clients on a daily basis.

How did this come about? Back in March 2010, Color Budz producer Lori Sawaya invited Kelly Berg and me to record podcasts on color perspectives. Dubbed Color Podz,  we wanted to explore topics on color and the built environment that interested and challenged us: from color psychology to color design. More than a year later, our podcasts have been downloaded more than 20,000 times. We got the sense that concrete, trustworthy information on color was greatly needed.

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The reality is, anyone involved in the paint industry (paint retailer, manufacture, designer, or trend spotter) needs to know what is happening color-wise in the marketplace. The evolution of color trends is fleeting but relevant, and in today’s climate of customization, clients expect their needs and tastes will be met. The lightening fast pace of information transmission means consumers are savvier and more educated than ever before. They want to feel that service providers have their fingers on the pulse of what is happening right now.

Looking at the options for industry professionals to find timely data on what consumers are currently asking for, there’s a major disconnect between needs and solutions. Traditional trend forecasting reports are published 12, sometimes 18 months in advance, and are only educated guesses at what consumers will want, generally ignoring specific context. Then there are independent trend forecasters, but they focus primarily on merchandising, not interiors. Regional differences are another area that is overlooked; a designer in Florida is not going to use the same palette as someone in New England.

Color Outlook is Lori Sawaya, Kelly Berg, Rachel Perls, Paula Doelling-Lynn, Annie Elliott, and Amy Woolf

Those of us working on architectural spaces know it should be all about a person’s unique needs, rather than imposing the “latest and greatest” color on them. But to ignore patterns in clients’ interests would leave us color pros at a significant disadvantage.
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After fielding request after request for gray walls instead of beige, or after spec’ing a bright cherry red (like SW Positive Red) over and over again, I had to pay attention. What colors are homeowners looking at? What finishes are they ordering? A marketing rep sealed off in a cubicle isn’t going to have that kind of data. Lori Sawaya, Color Outlook’s executive producer, explains, “it is true that color consultants and designers working in the field are on the front lines of identifying the ebb and flow of how real people with real projects are thinking about color right now.  I recognized the fact that trolling social media and scrolling through blog after blog, looking for these valuable nuggets… required trend spotters to invest a lot of time and effort.” That is where Color Outlook comes in.
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In a pinch, paint retailers will know what colors to pull for seasonal displays. Designers will better understand the colors their clients are reaching for. Trend forecasters will have market data for their reports. Whether to gain a leg up on the competition or as a way to draw interest or increase sales, industry professionals need this kind of timely, concrete information.

Have you noticed a hole that needs to be filled in the paint and coatings industry? What special color services do you offer, or would you like to see developed?

Global Color Semiotics

I find the language of color fascinating. What words do you associate with any given hue? Do these associations line up across the country? What about across the world?
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PhD student Maryam Mohammadzadeh Darrodi is investigating just this very question.

Colour Selection for product Design
"Colour perception is a broad and complex aspect amongst artists, designers and scientists. Each of these groups have there own way of defining colour and explaining the effectiveness of different elements in colour selection. The process of colour selection in product design is directly dependent on the characteristics of the products and the nature of target markets: culture, geographical location, age and gender of the consumer, to list a few. Aim of this study is to identify and bridge this gap and find a convenient way to use the knowledge of these interconnected groups. As an outcome, a tool can be developed to help the designer with the key facts of colour selection based on the type of product."
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Her global survey presents a color and various descriptors, asking viewers to chose how closely they associate the hue with specific words.

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Is a color heavy or light? Soft or hard? The test is only 3 pages long, and you only get the opportunity to analyze one color. But you can retake the test as many times as you like, as each time you re-enter the site, a new color is presented.

I gather the finished product will be developed into graphic design software plugins for designers. By sliding various bars up and down, users can essentially "dial" in colors based on descriptors. I'm curious to see if there are universally-accepted definitions.

Take the survey and let us know what you think, then pass it on!

Design Blogger Meet Up July 21

I just read about this: any locals planning on attending?

It’s high-time we all meet-up! If you’re a design blogger and live in the San Francisco Bay Area {or will be in the area}, we’d love for you to join us at Closet Innovations in the San Francisco Design Center on July 21st.

Feel free to spread the word! Also, space is limited, so please RSVP soon to

Color evolution- do you agree?

I was perusing an ezine put out by AkzoNobel. In it, they track the evolution of popular colors through the past several years, predicting where each of the major hues is going next. I find the whole thing fascinating. Here they are:






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Do you agree with their summaries? What about where each hue is headed next? How can this be reflective of architectural interiors- is it relevant? Let's discuss!