Color Theory Fact and Fiction

Back in 2015 I began a personal project to read the most important historical reference books on Color Theory that still influence us today. It was a way to try and understand how Color Theory applies to visual artists today, and why there seemed to be so much contradicting information and buzz out there about the right or wrong ways to create with color. You can check out my big Color Theory reading list here.

It's been an amazing project, and I did succeed in understanding more about Color Theory as it applies to creating. Most often I've been asked what the biggest takeaway was from the reading project that I can share with others, and it boils down to this, the difference between Color Theory fact and fiction.

#1. There is a difference between Color Theory in application and as inspiration.

#2. Misunderstandings about the basics of 3 pigment primary systems and their use have resulted in false statements about color systems and mixing of colors.

#3. People who present information about Color Theory for creatives don't always present opinions as different from facts or cite sources. In other words, there's stuff out there about using Color Theory in print and online that (gasp!) isn't based on facts.

#4. Humans perceive light in a complex biological, neurological, and psychological process. Our eyes include only three basic color receptors, out of which our neurological system processes in several ways to create the perception of all the colors we perceive in the entire world. No matter what you use to create your work, or how you choose your colors, every single person who sees your work (and after all, the viewing by others is the whole point of creating, right?) is perceiving your work in a similar way.

Color Theory in Application

Color Theory in application is simply the physical action of putting color into practical use. This can include working directly with pigments (paint, dye, or ink), process printing, photographic color process, digital imaging, hair coloring, application of makeup, etc.

A painter uses color in a direct application when mixing and applying pigments onto any surface (canvas or paper, or even the surfaces of a house). Artists can use just three colors to study the way in which pigments mix together, and this is known as a 3-pigment primary system. These three pigments can include any hue (tint, tone, shade, temperature, etc.) of a RED, YELLOW, and BLUE (RYB) pigment. Keep in mind that artists don't limit themselves to just three pigments when working in their chosen medium, it's just a simple way to learn when first starting out.

Working with light, such as creating or manipulating digital images displayed on a screen made of light pixels (your smartphone, tablet, computer, or television), uses the 3 primary colors of light RED, GREEN, and BLUE (RGB). This system works with light because it is based in how humans actually perceive light using the trichromatic theory of color perception.

The Myth of the Lying 3 Pigment Primary Systems

If you've been reading online about 3 primary pigment systems, you'll notice right away that there seems to be a fight between the RED, YELLOW, and BLUE system vs. the CYAN, MAGENTA, and YELLOW system. Some people talking as experts on Color Theory have gone so far as to say that the CMY system is correct and the RYB system is false, a total lie, and should never, ever, ever be used. Let's look at the roots of this misconception.

Artists began to record their thoughts and observations about color in the early 18th Century (like Coloritto by J. C. Le Blon). Artists have always looked back at previous generations and masters as part of the learning process, keep this in mind as you read further! In the 18th century the only pigments available for painting were from natural sources (animal, mineral, and plant). Most artists mixed their own pigments from recipes that include all kinds of chemicals, some of them dangerous and possibly deadly (read more in The Secret Lives of Colors by  Kassia St. Clair). Colors painted on canvas were not always permanent, some faded over time, and some caused damage to the painted surface. As a result, colors for painting were limited in palette and consistency. Bright colors that we take for granted today, available consistently in handy tubes at most craft or art supply stores down the street were not an option.

With this in mind, artists were writing observations on how the pigments mixed together, and they noted that red, yellow, and blue colors could be used to mix a very wide variety of other colors. Additionally, they noted that red, yellow, or blue could NOT be mixed from any other color available to them on their pallets. Artists would also note that different tints, tones, or shades of these three colors red, yellow, and blue would create completely different looking sets of colors.

This was the discovery of the basic 3 primary pigment system; any combination of one reddish, one yellowish, and one blueish pigment could be used to create other colors. Some colors of red, yellow, and blue worked better than others. When working in a closed 3 pigment primary system, no other colors within the system can be used to create the 3 basic colors. Therefore, what these early artists recorded in their early writing about the process was that red cannot be mixed from any other colors. This is true in any closed 3 pigment primary system where red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors. Remember that phrase about not being able to mix red for later!

During the experimentation and invention that took place during the industrial revolution, scores of new pigment colors were being discovered along with new processes to supply read-made paints for use by artists. It became easier to purchase and use a wider variety of colors that were more consistent and permanent. One of these newly discovered pigments was a magenta color, which was later perfected in a transparent ink by Herbert E. Ives for use in printing with the CMY system.

This is another form of a 3-pigment primary system, a bright blue called Cyan, a reddish color called Magenta, and a clear Yellow as primary colors used to create a range of other colors in the closed system. In the CMY system, no other color that appears in this system can be mixed to create a cyan, magenta, or yellow color.

By the way, if you're wondering what CMYK the 3-color printing process of CMY it was discovered that a large quantity of ink in the CMY system had to be used to produce a dark black color. To cut down on the amount of ink used, black was added for better definition of key parts of the image, thus the "K" in CMYK stands for key color of black.

Back to our color theory 3 pigment primary train here! In the CMY system, you can mix together magenta and yellow to create a form of red. Did you get that? Within the 3-pigment primary system of cyan, magenta, and yellow, you CAN mix a reddish-orangish hue from two of the primary colors.

But wait, above we saw a statement that "red cannot be mixed from any other colors" when talking about the red, yellow, blue system, right? How can artists say that? LIES! All lies I tell you!

Actually, nope. Not lies, just misinformation. Many artists wrote at length about mixing colors well before the CMY system ever existed on this planet. And other artists were still looking back to those texts well after new pigments were invented making CMY possible. And, add to this that the statement "red cannot be mixed from any other colors" was taken completely out of this context. That phrase applies specifically to the 3-pigment primary system of red, yellow, and blue. Within this closed system, red cannot be mixed from any other colors made in this system.

Just as within the cyan, magenta, and yellow system magenta cannot be mixed from any other colors made in this system.

Therefore, anyone who uses the statement "red cannot be mixed from any other colors" to discredit or otherwise disenfranchise the validity of the red, yellow, blue 3 pigment primary system is taking the phrase completely out of context to make a false argument.

TRUE: In the 3-pigment primary system of red, yellow, and blue, you cannot mix red from any other color.

FALSE: You cannot mix red from any other colors of paint pigments.

Got it? Good! Remember it, and pass it on.

And, as a final note, the majority of artists working with pigments never restrict themselves to only three primary pigments. Usually, the artist will select a range of pigments, mixing some together to create new colors with the knowledge of how these pigments will react and what colors can be expected with mixing. To hear an argument that artists should use only one 3 pigment primary over another, or that one is "right" and one is definitely "wrong" is kind of a moot point. Visual artists applying pigments directly don't use Color Theory restrictively in that way (unless, of course, they are restricting themselves purposefully to a limited 3 color primary palette as part of their work). Visual artists, especially successful ones, know their chosen pigment media in depth and can create colors imagined or experienced in the real world without having to lean only on one restrictive 3 pigment primary. End of story.

Human Color Perception

Your eyeballs include only three types of light wave receptors corresponding to the perception of red, blue, and green light waves. So basically, your eyes can only detect three actual colors, the rest of which you "see" because your nervous system is processing the information to create the sensation of different colors when these three basics mix together in different proportions. The color system of trichromatic human color perception is red, blue, and green.
If you want to be downright technical about how you (or anyone else) experiences anything seen (such as something you create), the RGB system of color perception is the only one that matters. I can't say it any better than Frans Gerritsen in his masterwork, Theory and Practice of Color. This book totally exploded my brain the first time I read it.

The most current texts about color (like Color Studies or Color Works) clearly name the three color systems I've just described above as the Pigment color wheel (also called the Subtractive wheel or Artists wheel) with 3 primaries red/yellow/blue, the Process wheel (also called the Partative wheel or Printers wheel) with 3 primaries cyan/yellow/magenta, and the light wheel (also called the Additive wheel or Human Color Perception wheel) with 3 primaries red/green/blue. These have become standard with no mention of one being more right or more wrong than any other, and each having its own purpose.

Color Theory Inspiration

Color Theory in inspiration is simply the process of being mentally stimulated to create something by looking directly at tools like a color wheel or 3-dimensional color system. Which system you use for inspiration is completely up to you, there are many to choose from. Some people might prefer one system over another for inspiration, as clearly, some systems include more or different colors than others.

But don't be mistaken here, the personal preference for using one color system or tool over another for inspiration does not negate other systems, or make one system the "right" system and all others "wrong" choices.

My personal advice to visual artists, quilters, and all makers who love color is to look at several color systems (I blogged about a few of them here) and the color harmonies that are created within each of those systems (I also blogged about how to use a color wheel here).

How to Use Color Theory Creatively

Last but not least, here's some solid advice for using Color Theory in your creative practice.

There are no right or wrong choices for how you use color when you create. If you choose to use a particular color system as inspiration, that's your preference. Your personal preference to use one color system as inspiration doesn't make someone else's preference for a different system wrong.

If you want to create something with color that takes advantage of human color perception, use the RGB system for inspiration - after all, it's how you and I experience color in the world. And although some people have pointed out that the RGB system is like a "mirror" of the CMY system, they still represent DIFFERENT systems with different meanings. Yes, you can use a basic 12 color CMY and RGB wheel to come up with some of the same harmonies and color combinations. But you cannot say that the CMY system represents light or "the light wave" because it just doesn't (yes C&T Publishing, I'm looking at you). Only the RGB system of light and human color perception can represent light, or how humans perceive different wavelengths of light as color.

If you are searching for more information for using Color Theory in your work, beware what you read. Look specifically for information from bloggers, authors, teachers, or self-professed experts on the subject who source their information. If what you're reading sounds more like someone's opinion than fact, it probably is. Ask questions if you don't quite understand something someone says or where the ideas or information came from. Request specific sources.

If you talk about Color Theory authoritatively as a blogger, teacher, author, educator, or self-professed expert on the subject, please be clear about the information you are putting forth for others. If you're talking about your opinion or preference for using color, just say so! If you're basing information on a specific system, or other experts, please add in links to your blog, cite sources, or add a bibliography. Be prepared to answer questions about what you're saying or provide direct sources.

Do you have an appetite to learn more? Check out your local library to read what you can about human color perception and Color Theory. Or drop me a line, tell me what you're interested in specifically and I'll try to recommend a few books that I think you might like. Once you start to understand some basics, it's easy to see what's for reals and what's total baloney. And then you can ignore all the false buzz and bull about "color," and get down to the business of creating.


Kari V. said…
One thing I think adds some context to above is the topic of gamut. The cmy system has much larger gamut than ryb, and also overlays more closely to the gamut we see from the rgb cones in our eyes (which is why the complementary colors of cmy are rgb and vice versa). If you are a painter, you can create more colors from cmy. This is why commercial printers have used cmy (and it's friend k), because the gamut is larger. ryb is skewed toward warm colors.
Erika Mulvenna said…
Hi Kari V, and thanks for visiting my blog!

Yes, the CMY sytem of printing with transparent inks that overlap to create new colors does give printers a wider variety, or gamut, of colors than RYB inks. CMY inks made for the printing process were developed fully in the early 20th century specifically for color reproduction printing. The first successful experiments with color reproduction printing processes used red, yellow, and blue in the early 18th century before the technology existed to create the colors or fine transparency of inks used today.

There is a distinction between inks used in the commercial color reproduction CMYK process and pigments that most artists use in a direct application. Where artists are concerned, my opinoin is that CMY is just another variation of a 3 pigment primary system.

In 3 pigment primary systems, the overall temperature of your pallete of hues (or even how many more colors you can mix from them) depends wholly on what you select as your primaries. Let's use straight out of the tube acrylics to begin as primaries. You can select a light cadmium red, cadmium yellow, and cobalt blue to mix a set of secondaries and tertiaries, and yes, this will create a very warm palette. You can also select a quinacridone or pyrrole red, a light cadmium yellow or light yellow hansa, and a light blue permanent or brilliant blue to create a much cooler set of colors. Or select a medium magenta, yellow light hansa, and brilliant blue, and you've got yourself a CMY 3 pigment primary system.

As a painter you may choose CMY as your 3 pigment primary because you believe it creates the fullest gamut for your work. But in no way does your preference for one specific 3 pigment primary make other choices invalid for other artists, who may begin with something very similar, or very different than you, based on individual preferences and how they choose to create.

Yes, beginning artists are often restricted in how many colors they can work with to encourage learning how pigments interact. My experience has been that advanced artists who work with pigments do not restrict themselves only to one 3 pigment priamry system, but choose a variety of pigments that reflect their color preferences as they work. While some may begin with something like a CMY system, some do not. And again, choosing one 3 pigment primary system over the other is absolutely fine, but represents a personal preference for working with specific colors.

Finally, I'd suggest a look at Frans Gerritsen's fantastic book about human color perception. Yes, the RGB and CMY color wheels may look similar, and some people do say compliments of RGB are CMY and vice-versa, but these wheels represent completely different concepts. Light from a computer screen does not appear the same as color on a printed page. Direct light waves appear so much different than light reflected from a colored surface. My opinion is that there's nothing better than the RGB color system if you're looking to create something that really sparks the human eye. That being said, the CMY system represents pigments (printed or painted) that light reflects from before entering the eye, while the RGB system represents direct lightwaves entering the eye. Making statements that CMY and RGM are somehow interchangeable or have the same meaning can cause misunderstandings for folks that are not well-versed in Color Theory.

My hope in writing this post is to clear some of this misunderstanding up for those who are just learning, and to make clear what we need to present about these subjects to avoid misunderstandings and misinformation in the future.

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