The color violet and the color purple are not the same. There are discrete, yet important differences between both colors that shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, they should be celebrated.
For the purposes of this website, we embrace both the spectral (and thus monochromatic) color of violet, and the hybrid, diochromatic color of purple. Many cultures do not have a distinction. Distinct words for purple and violet don’t exist in everyday parlance in Chinese, for example. “Zi se” (紫色) is purple, yes, but 紫色 is also popularly accepted as shorthand for “紫罗兰色”the technical nomenclature for violet the spectral color. Scientists, and optical people, and engineers who design screens and computer monitors, which cannot create spectral violet without additively making a purple and then tweaking it in hue to a synthetic violet, they make the distinction, but most don’t.
But what are the differences between Violet and Purple? Why violet vs purple?
We’re here to help break through the confusion. Below, you will find our take on the differences between the violet color and purple color. With this knowledge in hand, you can not only satisfy your own curiosity. You can educate others on these differences and create a world that takes a more nuanced view of violet and purple.
Violet vs Purple: Some Significant Differences
Let’s start this exploration of violet vs. purple by referring to an unbiased adjudicator: the visible spectrum. This is one of the best ways to start because the spectrum is based on science. While all electromagnetic radiation is light, humans can only see a certain portion of this radiation (which we call visible light). Our eyes, which contain cone-shaped cells, tune in to the wavelengths in this band of spectrum, which produce visible light.
Looking at the spectrum, violet is at the end of the visible spectrum of light between blue and invisible ultralight. Purple, on the other hand, is a color intermediate between blue and red. It is not explicitly a spectral color. There is also a key difference in terms of wavelength. The violet color has a dominant wavelength of about 380 to 450 nanometers. By contrast, there technically is not a “wavelength of purple light.” Instead, purple is actually a mixture of wavelengths—namely, the wavelengths of red and blue.
So on a first principles basis, there is a subtle distinction between the purple color and violet color. But that said, violet and purple still appear similar to us. Violet objects are simply violet, while purple objects simultaneously appear both red and blue. The purple color and violet color stimulate our eyes in similar ways, making it easy for us to see the colors as similar. In fact, this distinction is only present in the eyes of humans. Other animals don’t share the cones and “post-processing” that occurs in our eyes.
In addition to these differences related to the visible spectrum, humans are also susceptible to the Bezold-Brücke shift. Essentially, the Bezold-Brücke shift is a perceptual change in hue that occurs when the intensity of a certain stimulus is either increased or decreased. As the intensity of light increases, spectral colors—like violet—shift more towards blue (if they are below 500 nanometers) or yellow (if they are above 500 nanometers). Therefore, as violet brightens, it starts to increasingly look more blue. By contrast, the Bezold-Brücke shift doesn’t occur with the purple color.
Ultimately, this is just an introductory look at the scientific elements of this violet vs. purple discussion. You can see, however, that this analysis of the violet color and purple color can be first addressed by looking at the way humans’ eyes work. Human biology and physics provide the baseline for this color distinction.
That said, these aren’t the only factors at play. There is an entirely separate element that plays a significant part in defining the way that humans understand (or perhaps fail to understand) the differences between the purple color and violet color.
That element is culture.
The Role of Culture
Scientific definitions of the purple color and violet color often come down to hard laws and sound theories. The cultural definition is far fuzzier.
We can start by looking at one group of people who are clearly obsessed with color and the distinctions between colors. That group is comprised of painters. Painters have tried explaining this violet vs purple dynamic. For instance, painters sometimes refer to color wheels, which can be thought of as an abstract illustrative organization of color hues around a circle. Using color wheels, painters can identify the relationships between things like primary colors, secondary colors, and tertiary colors. Traditionally, both the violet color and purple color have been placed between red and blue. The violet color is closer to blue and is less saturated than purple. The purple color, on the other hand, is closer to red (specifically between crimson and violet).
Beyond painters, it is also helpful to look at language; particularly, how some nations and cultures address the violet vs. purple debate. In France, for instance, “violet” is the only word available. The French word for “violet” consolidates the spectral color of violet and the mixed color that English speakers often call purple. What is meant by the English word “purple” in France is a color that contains more red and half the amount of blue than the equivalent purple in the United Kingdom and the United States.
In fact, depending on the defaults that we adhere to in our language, we tend to settle on slightly different positions for colors. This is true even everything is essentially just a spectrum. One fascinating discussion of this idea can be found in a course at Stanford University. The course is titled “Human Behavioral Biology” and its instructor is Robert Sapolsky. Sapolsky is a renowned neuroendocrinologist who has received significant recognition for his work—including the MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant in 1987.
In the first lecture of his Human Behavioral Biology course (which you can access here), Sapolsky explains how we impose categories on things that are not categorical. Even though there are so many spaces between violet and red, for instance, we rely on rules in the English language that cause us to divide the continua. According to Sapolsky, we break the continua down into boundaries (here, colors) because it makes it easier for us as speakers of a language to store information. It makes it easier for us to deal with the facts that we observe in our world.
But having said that, our definition of boundaries is not universal. Those individuals in another language (French, for example) may create their boundaries at other points. What is on the edge of violet in English may be firmly purple in another language, and vice versa. Ultimately, thinking in categories makes it easier for humans—wherever they live—to remember and evaluate concepts. Where those boundaries lie, again, is a function of culture and a human’s environment. But that said, these boundaries do exist across cultures and play a large part in how we interpret stimuli in our day-to-day lives.
Sapolsky’s thesis, therefore, provides some significant insight into how different cultures and languages explain the dynamic of violet vs. purple. In an effort to make the world less complex and confusing, we as humans prefer to categorize abstract topics. Depending on our culture and where we live, the boundaries we place on these continua may overlap (or may be entirely separate) compared to other cultures and languages. We are seeing the same things due to human biology. Yet our interpretation of those things differ and will continue to differ.
Therefore, the scientific and cultural aspects of this debate comprise two sides of the same coin. In fact, this purple color and violet color dichotomy tends to have similar elements within the nature or nurture debate. There is no “true winner” per se; rather, both of these elements are part of the equation.
Appreciating the Complexity
This discussion of violet vs. purple touches on complex concepts like biology, physics, culture, and human nature. While you may have thought that the difference between the purple color and violet color could be easily explained away, it turns out that there are many important variables that cause humans to see the world a certain way.
Yes, both the violet color and purple color have some significant differences. They are not the same. It is easy for busy humans to brush aside these differences, use these terms synonymously for both colors, and move on with their lives.
But for us who are detail oriented or love exploring these concepts, these distinctions matter. Even if your audience does not specifically care about the differences between the violet color and purple color, you may want to be as precise as possible. If this is the case, we hope that you have learned about some of the scientific and cultural reasons that separate violet and purple. Whichever color you favor—you certainly know where we stand— recognize that this distinction between violet and purple has occurred for countless years, and it will likely occur well into the future.
At violet.com violet vs purple matters. It matters not because one is superlative, or even that one is relatively better than the other. Violet vs purple is important because it underpins the meta discussion of what is real? Ostensibly, violet exists whether or not a human being does a damn thing about it. We perceive the spectrum, but if there were some colossal asteroidal event and none of us were here to perceive the spectrum, as we visibly see it, the spectrum would still exist. All of those discrete spectral colors would still exist.
But purple, well, doesn’t purple need to be made?
Violet is exact. Violet is primeval. It exists. Violet is.
I guess you could say that violet is modern. And maybe that makes purple post-modern. And maybe violet is post post-modern.
Purple is inexact, it is approximate. Purple is born of red and blue, and those colors are spectral, sure. But purple is still a human creation. It is the result of a messy combinatorial process, on that is as opaque as it is arbitrary. It is derivative. Purple is a remix.
But derivative works are original. Who can argue otherwise? That is like someone railing against fan-fiction. Why? Because it is less original? Well, yeah, maybe you have a point there. Yet even though fan-fiction may be a derivative of the original work of fiction, it is ultimately still original. We live in a remix age anyways. Our culture is a remix culture. Where do we stand but on the shoulders of giants?
Our mission here at violet.com is to bring the coolest things and experiences to those of us who cannot get enough of the color violet and the color purple. We are fans of this color violet/purple. Let us celebrate violet vs purple not as a faultline, but as a creative prompt. May violet and purple be an inspiration, may it live forever!