Color Theory and the Lies We Believe
By Sarah Jane
While most people have no use for color theory, artists need an accurate understanding of color because it affects how an artist identifies, creates, and uses color in a painting. Many people have come to believe that studying a particular color model will limit them in their possibilities, but in reality it’s when one really begins to study color theory that the doors open, and possibilities can be seen in numerous ways. Proper usage of color greatly enhances and enlivens good technique and style. Most unfortunately, color theory is all too often incorrectly taught, making it virtually useless in most cases. It would be useful to examine traditional color theory, the history of primary colors, and the purpose of color theory, color perception, and finally, CMY color theory.
All across the United States, our schools are teaching color theory. Starting from a young age, children are taught that there are three primary colors from which all other colors are mixed. These three colors are Red, Yellow, and Blue. They are primary, therefore they cannot be mixed by any other colors. Mixing equal amounts of any two of the primary colors creates the secondary colors—Orange, Green, and Purple. These colors are then put into a wheel with the primaries forming an equilateral triangle and the rest of the colors filling in the spaces to form a complete circle. Complementary colors are those directly across from each other on the wheel. When mixed, they create brown. What is not taught is that it is impossible to get a saturated green or purple from the primaries. Creating a bright pink from red and white is impossible, and it is indeed possible to mix red and blue, the supposed “primaries” that cannot be created. The model doesn’t even begin to stand up to minor scrutiny when compared with what is known scientifically. This fail in color theory may be why many artists claim that color theory isn’t important to study because it can only be used as a vague guideline anyway.
Though there are many different systems for organizing color, it has long been accepted that all colors can be mixed from just three colors. Aristotle was the first to present this idea. Though the belief that these three colors are yellow, red, and blue, has been in existence since medieval times, it was not until Francois D’ Aguilion, a Jesuit mathematician, embraced them as the primary colors from with all other colors are mixed, did it gain popularity and spread. Interestingly, though many ancient painters were well aware of the primary colors, it was not the painter’s common practice. In fact, it was said to be an unsatisfactory method for mixing colors. Many things are wrong with this theory. A deeper look into color theory shows that there is actually no such thing as a primary color. No three colors, no matter what the colors, can produce all other colors. The problem is not that we use and teach primary colors, but that we give them definitions that are untrue. Primary colors must not be taught as fact. A proper definition is as follows: “Primary colors are sets of colors that can be combined to make a useful range of colors. For human applications, three primary colors are usually used, since human color vision is trichromatic.” While color organization is extremely beneficial, it should always be kept in mind that our color systems were created to aid us, not limit us.
The purpose of color theory is to create a system that organizes color into an understandable structure that helps us to describe and reproduce color. The invention of primary colors helps artists simplify the vast array of colors we have to work with, as well as gives insight into the makeup of individual colors as they relate to the whole color spectrum. The color wheel helps organize those colors in a way that allows color relations to be easily viewed and studied. Yet, it is important to note that as helpful as color models are, they are still only man’s feeble attempts at organizing the vast amount of complex color information that we have.
There are many theories regarding what color really is and how we perceive it. Part of the reason color theory is so unstable is because of the controversy on this subject. Scientists cannot prove much of the theories regarding color perception. Since all of our models of color theory are based off of color perception, it is impossible to boldly proclaim any one theory as fact. Some say that color is in light, while others say that light has no color. Some believe that color is purely a sensation of the mind, while others believe it is a mixture of the above stated views.
Despite the controversy in how we perceive color, it is generally accepted that Newton’s conclusion of seven basic colors in the light spectrum, is correct. Based on this discovery, two color spectrums have been developed: the additive spectrum and the subtractive spectrum. One deals with light and the other with dyes, inks, and pigments. Physicist Thomas Young (1773 – 1829) discovered that when mixed together, Red, Green, and Blue light created white light. These colors relate very closely to the way it is believed that we perceive color through the R G B receptors in our retinas. Thus, Red, Green, and Blue are considered the primaries of the additive spectrum—the spectrum of visible light. The subtractive spectrum, called subtractive because wavelengths of light are absorbed when mixing one or more colors together instead of added as in the additive spectrum, has a different set of primaries. These colors are Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. An interesting observation is that the primaries of the additive spectrum (Red, Green, and Blue) are the secondary colors of the subtractive spectrum, and likewise the primaries of the subtractive spectrum are the secondary colors of the additive spectrum. This is because of the reverse effect of dealing with light addition verses light subtraction. Complementary colors are opposites, providing you use the correct color wheel. When mixed, they should result in gray or black, not brown as conventional color theory teaches. A complementary color is the color that is left when you eliminate the hues that makeup a particular color. Cyan is made up of green and blue, thus leaving red as it's compliment. [look at the diagram below] An easy way to find a complementary color is to use the afterimage test. The longer your eyes rest upon a color, the more fatigued the stimulated photoreceptor cells become. This in turn causes them to lose sensitivity so that when your eyes are returned to a blank space, those colors remain muted and the paired primaries shine through strongly. Notice that in no way does the conventionally accepted color model of Red, Blue, and Yellow primaries fit in with these scientific discoveries. If Red and Blue are both primaries of paint, as traditional color theory tells us, then how can they be primaries of light too?
Traditional color theory is just that, traditional. Discoveries in science have long since surpassed it, and it’s time for artist’s catch up. While there is still much to be discovered, many speculations of the past have been proven false. No favors are gained by holding onto these old theories. It is especially damaging when untrue theories are presented as facts by schools and art teachers. Only some of the ideas presented work, thus frustrating students and causing them to disregard color theory as a reliable source. Even through a glance at a science book, it is easy to see that traditional color theory no longer has any standing in our evolving knowledge. Peeking into history, shows that it's makeup possibly never even had any scientific basis to begin with, and was merely speculation. While some artists may get along fine without ever studying color theory, it is helpful for others to have an organized way of viewing such a complex subject. There is a large variety of color wheels and triads to choose from, but at the present, the CMY system seems to be the most scientifically accurate. However, in the end it comes down to what is most useful for the individual artist. Not only are there different styles to consider, but a landscape artist's palette may be different from a portrait artist's, and an illustrator's palette from a cartoonist's. As long as it is remembered that all color models are an attempt to organize an already existent world of color, studying it will only serve to further enable the artist to see new possibilities in color mixing and harmony.