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Color Theory




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 abilities.

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 scientist.

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 -


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 upon it. 

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!

Color Overview
Color Science
Artists Color Wheels 



2007, 2004, 2003, 2002 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.