how mirrors seem to be the color of what they are reflecting while also looking silver.


I have been wondering this since I was a child and it’s never been explained in a way I can understand.

I’m looking at my bathroom mirror and it looks silver. But how is that possible because it’s reflecting whatever is in front of it?

So when I look at the reflection of the towel in the mirror i see blue, when I see the reflection of the wall I see white, when I see the reflection of the shower curtain I see the color of the shower curtain. But when I look at the mirror as a whole it seems silver?

I think I have read that mirrors have silver backings which makes sense why I see silver. But I don’t understand how it’s possible to see the exact reflection of my bathroom but it’s also silver?

In: Other

Mirrors don’t look like they have the color of what they are reflecting.

When you see blue on the towel surface, light has hit the towel, and mostly blue light scattered from there to your eyes.

When you see a blue towel reflected by a mirror, you are not “seeing blue” at the mirror surface. Light has hit the towel, mostly blue light was scattered from there, some reflected on the mirror, then reached your eyes.

We shouldn’t say a mirror has “silver color”. If anything, a mirror would be white (as it can reflect all colors). A blue tinted mirror is a “blue mirror” by the same reasoning. One could say that the mirror does not reflect 100% of all light, so it is somewhat grey, thus “silver” – an opaque silver object is grey; polished silver is reflective, it has no “color” of its own.

“Looking silver” is what we call surfaces that reflect their surroundings. It’s not actually a color. So “seeming to be the color of what they’re reflecting” and “looking silver” are one and the same thing, just different ways of describing the same appearance.

If you put a silver object in a uniformly illuminated room with blank walls it wouldn’t “look silver”, it would look like one uniform color. But that’s a really contrived setup that “never” occurs in our day-to-day experience so we don’t associate that with “looking silver.”

Human brains are really good at reasoning out color properties of objects, despite differing environments. Like some red berries will look different at sunrise versus noon because of the different light hitting them, but it was important to the survival of humans to be able to realize it was the same substance.

So, we don’t *just* evaluate the color of the light that actually enters our eyes. There’s a secondary step of evaluating the environment around the object, to make adjustments to the perceived color. You can see this with optical illusions like [this one]( In that example, we evaluate two squares of the same true color to be two *different* colors, because of how we interpret the surrounding light and shadows.

With that established, let’s consider reflections. Reflections aren’t a new invention, as natural reflective surfaces (like still lakes and puddles) are ubiquitous. So, we evolved to deal with those as well, and to realize that even if something was tinted a different color in a reflection because of how the material did not reflect all light with the same intensity, it wasn’t different from the original reflected object. Instead, we interpret the reflecting surface as having a particular color, which gets mixed with the original image.

If you look at a polished gold candlestick or something, the reality is that the light from other objects is reflected and we’re seeing that–but the gold alters the reflected light a bit, so we see different color components at different intensities. The way we model that in our brain is to think of that object as being *reflective* but also *gold* in color–although an intrinsic color really isn’t a thing that exists in reality. It’s a shortcut for our brains to process the world around us quickly and effectively.

So, what happens with a surface that reflects light rather evenly? Well, if it’s rough and scatters light randomly, we see it as a matte gray. If it is smooth and therefore reflective like a mirror, we can see the color of individual reflected objects clearly. But our brain, of course, works a certain way for evaluating reflected objects. We think, “the original color of the reflected object is this, and in the mirror it’s this…which is basically the same…So what color does that make the mirror?” And the answer is, the same color as a rough surface that reflects light evenly across the spectrum, or in other words: gray.

So it’s not exactly that the mirror *is* gray, or any specific color. But our brains want to assign a color to it so that we can internally model what we are seeing, and the color that works correctly for that purpose is gray.

When you look at a yellow object, that means that object is absorbing all the other colors except yellow. That yellow is reflected back in all directions.

A mirror reflects ALL colors back in a *single* direction, creating a mirror.

If it reflected all colors back in *all* directions, that’s where you get the color white 🙂

Related question: What wavelength is silver?

In short – you mainly see light that bounces from other objects and then off the mirror, but that also shows you the colour of substrate behind the pane of glass – silver in your case. But both images overlay.

If there would be no silver substrate but a copper one – you would see tints of golden-brown.

If there would be no room details but a uniform white light – you would see only tint.

Because there are no ideal mirrors – same as there are no ideal white and black materials. Yet.

Take a close look at airbrush art that portrays large sections of silver or chrome and identify each of the colours section by small section. You’ll see there’s no silver in it. But if you stand back, you see “silver”. Mostly the shiny surface is just white with other colours mimicking a reflected surface.