Color is a phenomenon that can spark
unbelievable debates. It's not my intention to explore this subject
to its deepest scientific or philosophical depths. I only wish to
provide a primer on the topic.
I've taught color theory to several
different types of students ranging from scientist, to printers, and
artist. The differences in what I teach have to do with the
background and needs of my students. I've found that I generally teach
light interactions and color to all three groups in the same manner
although not at the same technical level (artists and
printers are not typically too enthusiastic about calculus based physics).
When it comes to color geometric models I've
discovered that I don't provide the same information to the artist that I
provide to the scientist and reprographics students (printers and graphic
design artists). It's not because I don't love my art students. It's
because they have different needs. And although film and digital
color reprographics have specific requirements and limitations, most
artist aren't tied to them nor do they typically care what they are (I'm
not speaking of those using computers to create their art. I
understand you care). For you artists who do care about your color
gamut or who would like to know what one is, we'll cover it later.
So what geometric models do I teach to my
students? I prefer to have my beginning students use some of the
historical color wheels. Although the older color models may not be as
scientifically valid as newer color geometries, they are valuable as a
teaching tool and force the students to develop their color mixing
For the artist, being able to successfully
match the color of the paint to the object may or may not be vital.
But, not being able to accomplish this task is perhaps one of the greatest
areas of frustration to the beginner. Have you ever witnessed the
student carefully wrapping a palette in plastic, trying to save a mixed
color to use for the next session, for fear of not being able to replicate
the color again? This is one area that I make sure that my students
feel confident in.
Interestingly, there continue to be great
debates over color theory, measurement, and interpretation (We'll briefly
go through some of the historical points at the bottom of the page).
I've found that I most of the arguments have merit, but like many
arguments and debates the participants aren't viewing the problem from the
same perspective. I, myself, have different opinions on the subject
when asked the same question in different contexts; artist verses
Not utilizing the modern color geometric
models with my beginning students has caused many inward debates. My
scientist side and my artist side don't necessarily agree. However, I once
heard a very famous musician speaking about technique say that what is true
scientifically may not necessarily be true musically. Hence,
although the old triad based color wheels may not be true scientifically,
maybe they hold value artistically - at least as a start.
As the student matures, we explore other
geometries and cover the modern models. There is a whole section devoted
to exploring various examples and the scientific standards are covered in
the color theory section.
I don't know of any mature artist that
hasn't varied the colors that he/she uses and thus the color geometry created by his/her
selection. This said, there are some artists that spend an
unfortunate amount of time debating how many and what colors should be
used on the palette. Probably what is more important than color
selection is how the artist is able to use the colors chosen.
So let's go back in time to the start of the
great color debates -
THE GREAT COLOR DEBATES
So why much debate over color?
Because describing it and matching one
mixture of dyes to another can be vitally important if your job depends
So where did the debate start?
Historically there have been two camps - the
scientist and the textile dyers. The scientists work primarily with
light, while the textile dyers work with dyes. Scientist, like Sir
Isaac Newton discovered numerous relationships between light and matter.
The relationships that these scientist discovered and the theories that
they put forth were adopted by the textile dyers. Unfortunately
color relationships for light and color relationships for dyes and
pigments aren't interchangeable. You might remember in science class being
told that white light can be split into all of the colors of the rainbow
and that if you put all of these colors together you'll get white light
again. It's true - for light. Try transferring that rule over
to dyes and pigments. The infamous "mud" appears!
So why much debate over color?
Because it's so hard to describe.
For reflected light, the type of light
observed by the artist, color is dependent upon three variables: the
illuminating source, the absorption characteristics of the object, and the
interpretation of the brain to the electronic impulses created by the
reflected light from the object projecting onto the back of the eye. Since
everyone has different eyes and a different brain, describing color can be
quite difficult. Up until the 20th century describing color was very
subjective and the methods were created primarily by the textile dyers.
In the 20th century, scientist entered the arena again and attempted to
make the process more objective.
In the following sections I've included some
of the information that I provide to the classes I teach to printers and
forensic document examiners. I've dropped the primer on
electromagnetic waves and filters. (If you feel neglected in not
being provided these sections, let me know in class and I'll get them for
you. If you are not one of my students, but a gentle web browser -
drop me an email).
I've also included sections specifically on
artist geometric models (color wheels). I've attempted to provide
some direction as to their value and limitations.
Remember that most models have value and
that what might be true scientifically, may not be true artistically!
(Ever had a photo that didn't look like you? How is that possible
from a scientifically sound piece of instrumentation?)
I hope you find the following pages helpful!