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Art Classes with Marc Surrency

Color Overview
Color Science
Artists Color Wheels




Color Overview



So what is Color?  

"Color... is the result of the physical modification of light by colorants as observed by the human eye (called a perceptual process) and interpreted in the brain (which introduces psychology)."(Meyer, p1) Therefore, there are three very important factors to describe color: 1) the light source, 2) the colorant, and 3) the eye-brain combination.  The first two can be penned down by science, but the third is quite elusive.  There is actually also a forth component that the color scientist typically leave out, but is important to the astronomers and the artist alike; atmosphere.  Atmospheric absorption occurs when the transmitted or reflected light is absorbed by gases in the air.  Astronomers encounter this phenomena in the color (absorption spectra) of the stars. Artists encounter it when viewing objects at a distance, such as mountains.

Down and dirty, as an artist what do we need to know?

White light can be thought of as a mixture of all colors.  This is known as additive color.

When the light strikes an object some of the colors making up the white light are absorbed, while the rest is reflected to our eyes.  This is known as subtractive color because some of the white light has been removed (absorbed) by the pigment in the object.

(example: a red circle absorbs all of the colors from the white light except red which is reflected)

Receptors in our eyes send signals to our brain informing it of what colors were present in the reflected light.  Then our brain forms the image. 

As the distance between the object and our eyes increases, more of the reds and yellows in the reflected light are absorbed by gases in the air making the object appear less saturated and "bluer"

The artist has to try to reproduce the light absorbing qualities of the object and the affect of the atmospheric absorption, if there is any, by mixing paints. To better understand how to undertake this mission it helps to understand how mixtures of light and pigment behave.  One organized approach is the use of a color geometric solid or the more common two-dimensional color wheel.

There are essentially two primary color wheels: additive and subtractive.  These two color wheels are complements of each other and for some reason give most people much grief in understanding them.  They are both covered in depth in the color science section

Artists utilize subtractive color wheels. The idea behind this tertiary color (3 primary colors) wheel is that mixtures of cyan (light greenish blue), yellow, and magenta (a bluish red) can be created that simulate the the same absorption and reflection of light exhibited by objects in nature as they are viewed by the human eye. 


You might recognize these colors as those used by color inkjet and laser printers.  This color wheel is the more accurate version of the historical primary color wheel consisting of blue, red, and yellow.  It works fairly well.

As I mentioned earlier, color geometric models such as the color wheel we just looked at were developed by both artist and scientist.  All of them have strengths and weaknesses and were not necessarily developed for the same purposes, although some have tried to adapt them to other purposes.  Sometimes successfully, most often not.  One main point to remember is that additive color geometric models are only valid for light and cannot be used to describe subtractive colors created by mixing paints.

The next section, color science, explores the nature of light in more detail.  It also describes the relationship between the additive and subtractive color wheels and the color models developed to accurately describe color.  If you wish you can skip that section and continue with Artist's Color Wheels.

2007 Marc J. Surrency. Physical or electronic reproduction in whole or part is unlawful without written permission of the artist.


2006 Marc J. Surrency.  Artist scans, images, and web design are protected by copyright. Physical or electronic reproduction in whole or part is unlawful without written permission of the artist.