Fluorescence is, generally speaking, the emission of light by a substance that has absorbed light or other electromagnetic radiation.
Talking specifically about fluorescent paint, this type of paint emits a faint "glow" when exposed to short-wave ultraviolet (UV) radiation. While these UV rays are naturally present in sunlight and some artificial lights, you'll usually need a "blacklight" lamp to clearly see a fluorescent paint's color – which led to them being called "blacklight effects".
Fluorescent paint absorbs invisible UV radiation and then releases it in longer wavelength visible light in varying colors. It's this emission that our eyes perceive as a glowing effect.
As an artist, it's important to understand these radical colors, how they're used in the past until today, what they mean and the different emotions they evoke, as well as their different shades, and how to produce them.
This article aims to help you do just that.
A Brief History of Fluorescent Colors
Unlike normal solid colors with their usage rooted since prehistoric times, fluorescent colors only became available relatively recently.
The earliest discovery of a fluorescent effect was first discovered in 1560 and 1565 by Bernardino de Sahagún and Nicolás Monardes, respectively. This fluorescent effect came in the form of a matlaline chemical compound infusion taken from the wood of two tree species, Pterocarpus indicus, and Eysenhardtia polystachya.
Fluorescence in fluorites was described by both Edward D. Clarke in 1819 and René Just Haüy in 1822. The same phenomenon was also observed in chlorophyll by Sir David Brewster in 1833 and Sir John Herschel in 1845.
Despite the earlier discoveries of the fluorescent phenomenon, it only got its name in 1852 when George Gabriel Stokes published a paper on the "Refrangibility" (wavelength change) of light. This paper described the ability of fluorspar and uranium glass to change invisible light beyond the violet end of the visible spectrum into blue light.
The next discovery relating to fluorescence happened in 1856 when German glassblower Heinrich Geissler invented a mercury vacuum pump that evacuated a glass tube to an extent previously thought impossible. By applying a high voltage through two electrodes at each end of the partially-evacuated tube, a glow discharge was produced. Different chemicals placed inside the tube produced different colors, eventually leading to the use of mercury to produce the first fluorescent lamps.
Fluorescent compounds such as ninhydrin or DFO (1,8-Diazafluoren-9-one) later became useful in forensics, particularly when searching for fingerprints. Today, fluorescent reagents, like fluorescein, are being used to find blood and other substances.
Fluorescent Colors: Psychology and Meaning
Humanity has used solid colors for so long that we've given these colors various meanings and associations. Fluorescent colors tend to hold the same emotional meanings as their solid counterparts, albeit to a heightened degree.
Let me explain:
We usually associate the color red with passion and energy. Fluorescent red amps up these associations to the point we associate it not just with energy and passion but with aggressive energy and sensual passion. Where red stands for anger, fluorescent red stands for burning hot rage.
The color orange is often associated with danger and is used to spark caution due to its visibility. Fluorescent orange aka safety orange, therefore, has come to be associated with boldness, protectiveness, and masculine energy.
Fluorescent yellow shares this same meaning of boldness but with the added association of "being in command".
The color green is often associated with simplicity, freshness, and the goodness of nature. However, since we don't usually see fluorescent green colors in nature, we tend to associate it with the unnatural, poison, or acid, as well as with strangeness and the bizarre. On the flip side, fluorescent green can also mean a strong motivation to achieve your goals.
We usually link the color blue to calmness, coolness, passivity, and having a levelheaded outlook. Fluorescent blue, however, represents calm yet dynamic energy.
The color pink is often associated with warmth, gentleness, and the feminine. Fluorescent pink shares this connection to feminine energy but exudes a more youthful and assertive tone.
Examples of Fluorescent Colors
Fluorescent colors emit a vivid brightness that makes them seem like they emit light, especially when viewed under a blacklight.
While our eyes can see millions of colors, these colors usually fall under just a few fluorescent versions. As of writing this article, there are currently only 7 different fluorescent colors.
Here they are:
1. Fluorescent Red
Fluorescent red is a light brilliant red color.
This color was first discovered by Inventor Georges Claude in 1910 by adapting Moore Lamps to use noble gases, in this case, the noble gas neon.
2. Fluorescent Orange
Fluorescent orange aka safety orange is characterized by its vivid reddish-orange color.
It's used to warn of hazards and is the usual color of high-viz clothing, road cones, and as the background color in safety warning notices.
3. Fluorescent Yellow
Fluorescent yellow has a light greenish-yellow shade.
This color is often used for objects requiring high visibility like traffic and road signs.
4. Fluorescent Green
Fluorescent green aka neon green characterized by its vivid yellowish-green color.
It's most often used in psychedelic art and fashion.
5. Fluorescent Blue
Fluorescent blue is a brilliant bluish-green color.
It's the main color of the Indian 50-rupee note.
6. Fluorescent Pink
Fluorescent pink aka shocking pink is characterized by its vivid reddish-purple tone.
This tone of pink was first used in the lettering on the box of the perfume called Shocking designed by Leonor Fini for the Surrealist fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli in 1937.
7. Fluorescent White
While this fluorescent color isn't as common as the ones previously mentioned, it does exist as a bright vibrant white-colored paint.
Nova Color Fluorescent Bundle
Try all the Nova Color Fluorescent colors in a convenient bundle
Modifying Fluorescent Acrylic Paints
Now that you have a deeper understanding of the different types of fluorescent colors, it's time to learn how to modify the ones you already have.
As artists, we usually look for the right shade of color to really make our painting pop. Fluorescent colors, in particular, can give your painting that eye-catching effect that you just can't get with solid colors.
If you don't happen to have the exact shade you need, here's how you can modify your white acrylic paint to achieve your desired shade
How to Create Warmer Fluorescent Shades
Since colors like fluorescent green and fluorescent pink are mixtures of at least two primary colors, you can give each of them a warmer tone by mixing them with warmer fluorescent colors.
Mix fluorescent pink with some fluorescent orange to get a warmer pink.
Add some fluorescent yellow to make a warmer fluorescent green.
How to Create Cooler Fluorescent Shades
If you want to give your fluorescent green or pink a cooler tone, just mix in some fluorescent blue.
How to Mute Fluorescent Colors
If you want to mute your fluorescent colors, try slowly adding in some solid white or black.