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Introduction to Color Theory
With colors you can set a mood, attract attention, or make a statement. You can use color to energize, or to cool down. By selecting the right color scheme, you can create an ambiance of elegance, warmth or tranquility, or you can convey an image of playful youthfulness. Color can be your most powerful design element if you learn to use it effectively. Colors affect us in numerous ways, both mentally and physically. A strong red color has been shown to raise the blood pressure, while a blue color has a calming effect. Being able to use colors consciously and harmoniously can help you create spectacular results.
Colour has been investigated and used for more than 2000 years. Throughout history, different civilizations have experimented and learned more about colour.
Earliest Times of Colour
The ancient Egyptians have been recorded to have been using colour for cures and ailments.They worshipped the sun, knowing that without light there can be no life. They looked at nature and copied it in many aspects of their lives. The floors of their temples were often green - as the grass which then grew alongside their river, the Nile. Blue was a very important colour to the Egyptians too; the colour of the sky. They built temples for healing and used gems (crystals) through which the sunlight shone. They would have different rooms for different colours. We could perhaps relate our present methods of colour/light therapy to this ancient practice. There are lists on papyrus dating back to 1550 BC of colour "cures". Their deep knowledge and understanding of the healing powers of the colour rays was so nearly lost when, later on in history, the Greeks considered colour only as a science. Hippocrates, amongst others, abandoned the metaphysical side of colour, concentrating only on the scientific aspect. Fortunately, despite this, the knowledge and philosophy of colour was handed down through the ages by a few. The Chinese also apparently practiced Colour Healing. The Nei/ching, 2000 years old, records colour diagnoses.
Early Colour Studies
Some of the early studies and theories about light were done by Aristotle. He discovered that by mixing two colours, a third is produced. He did this with a yellow and blue piece of glass, which when brought together produced green. He also discovered that light travels in waves. Plato and Pythagoras also studied light.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, Paracelsus reintroduced the knowledge and philosophy of colour using the power of the colour rays for healing along with music and herbs. Unfortunately, the poor man was hounded throughout Europe and ridiculed for his work. Most of his manuscripts were burnt, but now he is thought of, by many, to be one of the greatest doctors and healers of his time. A man, it would seem, very much ahead of his time. Not only do we now use Colour Therapy once again, but, his other ideas, using herbs and music in healing, can also be seen reflected in many of the complementary therapies now quite commonplace.
Issac Newton (1642 - 1727)
A pioneer in the field of colour, Isaac Newton in 1672, published his first, controversial paper on colour, and forty years later, his work 'Opticks'. Newton passed a beam of sunlight through a prism. When the light came out of the prism is was not white but was of seven different colours: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet. The spreading into rays was called dispersion by Newton and he called the different coloured rays the spectrum. He learnt that when the light rays were passed again through a prism the rays turned back into white light. If only one ray was passed through the prism it would come out the same colour as it went in. Newton concluded that white light was made up of seven different coloured rays.
Modern Day Thinking
Indeed, the 'Ancient Egyptians' worship of the sun may also have a place in the modern world since it may be the sun which will fuel all our central heating systems and lighting systems etc. in the years to come as the coal and oil supplies become depleted. We are now also aware of the effect of light deprivation on a large number of people who suffer
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter months. We are lucky that now we are all able to choose any colour we like and can buy products of any colour freely. This was not always the case. In times gone by, the pigments used to dye fabrics violet/purple were very expensive and, therefore, only available to the wealthy. For example, the Romans in high office would wear purple robes since this, to them, indicated power, nobility and thus authority. Black is not a bad colour It is also interesting to look at the different phases in history and how those phases have been reflected in the colours generally worn at those times. During times of severity and propriety the code of dress was very much dominated by black and grey. The Victorians mainly wore black - influenced by the Queen's long period of mourning no doubt - and were, in many ways, quite austere and, it has to be said, in many ways not very colourful. The Puritans too, of course, dressed in black. This is not to say that black is a bad colour. Every colour has its positive and negative aspects. Wearing black with another colour can enhance that other colour's energy. Black can also give the space sometimes needed for reflection and inner searching. It can indicate inner strength and the possibility for change. Before the last war it was noted that a lot of red was being worn. Red in its most positive is the colour for courage, strength and pioneering spirit, all of which were much needed by the men and women who were fighting that war. However, in the most negative aspect, it is the colour of anger, violence and brutality. As the war was coming to an end, pale blue became a popular colour - an omen of the peace to come perhaps, also giving everyone the healing they must have so badly needed.
Color theory was originally formulated in terms of three "primary" or "primitive" colors— red, yellow and blue (RYB)—because these colors were believed capable of mixing all other colors. This color mixing behavior had long been known to printers, dyers and painters, but these trades preferred pure pigments to primary color mixtures, because the mixtures were too dull (unsaturated).
Goethe's color wheel from his 1810 Theory of Colours The RYB primary colors became the foundation of 18th century theories of color vision, as the fundamental sensory qualities that are blended in the perception of all physical colors and equally in the physical mixture of pigments or dyes. These theories were enhanced by 18th-century investigations of a variety of purely psychological color effects, in particular the contrast between "complementary" or opposing hues that are produced by color afterimages and in the contrasting shadows in colored light. These ideas and many personal color observations were summarized in two founding documents in color theory: the Theory of Colours (1810) by the German poet and government minister Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and The Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast (1839) by the French industrial chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. Subsequently, German and English scientists established in the late 19th century that color perception is best described in terms of a different set of primary colors—red, green and blue violet (RGB)—modeled through the additive mixture of three monochromatic lights. Subsequent research anchored these primary colors in the differing responses to light by three types of color receptors or cones in the retina(trichromacy). On this basis the quantitative description of color mixture or colorimetry developed in the early 20th century, along with a series of increasingly
sophisticated models of color space and color perception, such as the opponent processtheory. Across the same period, industrial chemistry radically expanded the color range of lightfast synthetic pigments, allowing for substantially improved saturation in color mixtures of dyes, paints and inks. It also created the dyes and chemical processes necessary for color photography. As a result three-color printing became aesthetically and economically feasible in mass printed media, and the artists' color theory was adapted to primary colors most effective in inks or photographic dyes: cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY). (In printing, dark colors are supplemented by a black ink, known as the CMYK system; in both printing and photography, white is provided by the color of the paper.) These CMY primary colors were reconciled with the RGB primaries, and subtractive color mixing with additive color mixing, by defining the CMY primaries as substances that absorbed only one of the retinal primary colors: cyan absorbs only red (−R+G+B), magenta only green (+R−G+B), and yellow only blue violet (+R+G−B). It is important to add that the CMYK, or process, color printing is meant as an economical way of producing a wide range of colors for printing, but is deficient in reproducing certain colors, notably orange and slightly deficient in reproducing purples. A wider range of color can be obtained with the addition of other colors to the printing process, such as in Pantone's Hexachromeprinting ink system (six colors), among others.
Munsell's color system
For much of the 19th century artistic color theory either lagged behind scientific understanding or was augmented by science books written for the lay public, in particular Modern Chromatics (1879) by the American physicist Ogden Rood, and early color atlases developed by Albert Munsell (Munsell Book of Color, 1915, see Munsell color system) and Wilhelm Ostwald (Color Atlas, 1919). Major advances were made in the early 20th century by artists teaching or associated with the German Bauhaus, in particularWassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, Faber Birren and Josef Albers, whose writings mix speculation with an empirical or demonstration-based study of color design principles. Contemporary color theory must address the expanded range of media created by digital media and print management systems, which substantially expand the range of imaging systems and viewing contexts in which color can be used. These applications
are areas of intensive research, much of it proprietary; artistic color theory has little to say about these complex new opportunities.
The Color Wheel
The color wheel or color circle is the basic tool for combining colors. The first circular color diagram was designed by Sir Isaac Newton in 1666. The color wheel is designed so that virtually any colors you pick from it will look good together. Over the years, many variations of the basic design have been made, but the most common version is a wheel of 12 colors based on the RYB (or artistic) color model. There are a number of color combinations that are considered especially pleasing. These are called color harmonies or color chords and they consist of two or more colors with a fixed relation in the color wheel. ColorImpact is designed to dynamically create a color wheel to match your base color.
Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors
In the RYB (or subtractive) color model, the primary colors are red, yellow and blue. The three secondary colors (green, orange and purple) are created by mixing two primary colors. Another six tertiary colors are created by mixing primary and secondary colors.
Warm and cool colors
The color circle can be divided into warm and cool colors. Warm colors are vivid and energetic, and tend to advance in space. Cool colors give an impression of calm, and create a soothing impression. White, black and gray are considered to be neutral.
Tints, Shades, and Tones
These terms are often used incorrectly, although they describe fairly simple color concepts. If a color is made lighter by adding white, the result is called a tint. If black is added, the darker version is called a shade. And if gray is added, the result is a different tone. Tints - adding white to a pure hue:
Shades - adding black to a pure hue:
Tones - adding gray to a pure hue:
Additive color mixing
Subtractive color mixing
The foundations of pre-20th-century color theory were built around “pure” or ideal colors, characterized by sensory experiences rather than attributes of the physical world. This has led to a number of inaccuracies in traditional color theory principles that are not always remedied in modern formulations. The most important problem has been a confusion between the behavior of lightmixtures, called additive color, and the behavior of paint or ink or dye or pigment mixtures, called subtractive color. This problem arises because the absorption of light by material substances follows different rules from the perception of light by the eye. A second problem has been the failure to describe the very important effects of strong luminance (lightness) contrasts in the appearance of surface colors (such as paints or inks) as opposed to light colors; "colors" such as grays, browns or ochres cannot
appear in light mixtures. Thus, a strong lightness contrast between a mid valued yellow paint and a surrounding bright white makes the yellow appear to be green or brown, while a strong brightness contrast between a rainbow and the surrounding sky makes the yellow in a rainbow appear to be a fainter yellow or white. A third problem has been the tendency to describe color effects holistically or categorically, for example as a contrast between "yellow" and "blue" conceived as generic colors, when most color effects are due to contrasts on three relative attributes that define all colors:
1. 2. 3.
lightness (light vs. dark, or white vs. black), saturation (intense vs. dull), and hue (e.g., red, yellow, green, blue or purple).
Thus, the visual impact of "yellow" vs. "blue" hues in visual design depends on the relative lightness and intensity of the hues. These confusions are partly historical, and arose in scientific uncertainty about color perception that was not resolved until the late 19th century, when the artistic notions were already entrenched. However they also arise from the attempt to describe the highly contextual and flexible behavior of color perception in terms of abstract color sensations that can be generated equivalently by any visual media. Many historical “color theorists” have assumed that three “pure” primary colors can mix all possible colors, and that any failure of specific paints or inks to match this ideal performance is due to the impurity or imperfection of the colorants. In reality, only imaginary “primary colors” used in colorimetry can "mix" or quantify all visible (perceptually possible) colors; but to do this the colors are defined as lying outside the range of visible colors: they cannot be seen. Any three real “primary” colors of light, paint or ink can mix only a limited range of colors, called a gamut, which is always smaller (contains fewer colors) than the full range of colors humans can perceive.
Color Harmonies - basic techniques for creating color schemes
Below are shown the basic color chords based on the color wheel.
Complementary color scheme Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are considered to be complementary colors (example: red and green). The high contrast of complementary colors creates a vibrant look especially when used at full saturation. This color scheme must be managed well so it is not jarring. Complementary color schemes are tricky to use in large doses, but work well when you want something to stand out. Complementary colors are really bad for text.
Analogous color scheme Analogous color schemes use colors that are next to each other on the color wheel. They usually match well and create serene and comfortable designs. Analogous color schemes are often found in nature and are harmonious and pleasing to the eye. Make sure you have enough contrast when choosing an analogous color scheme. Choose one color to dominate, a second to support. The third color is used (along with black, white or gray) as an accent.
Triadic color scheme A triadic color scheme uses colors that are evenly spaced around the color wheel. Triadic color schemes tend to be quite vibrant, even if you use pale or unsaturated versions of your hues. To use a triadic harmony successfully, the colors should be carefully balanced - let one color dominate and use the two others for accent.
Split-Complementary color scheme The split-complementary color scheme is a variation of the complementary color scheme. In addition to the base color, it uses the two colors adjacent to its complement. This color scheme has the same strong visual contrast as the complementary color scheme, but has less tension. The split-complimentary color scheme is often a good choice for beginners, because it is difficult to mess up.
Rectangle (tetradic) color scheme The rectangle or tetradic color scheme uses four colors arranged into two complementary pairs. This rich color scheme offers plenty of possibilities for variation. Tetradic color schemes works best if you let one color be dominant. You should also pay attention to the balance between warm and cool colors in your
Square color scheme
The square color scheme is similar to the rectangle, but with all four colors spaced evenly around the color circle. Square color schemes works best if you let one color be dominant. You should also pay attention to the balance between warm and cool colors in your design.
RGB Color: This is color based upon light. Your computer monitor and television use RGB. The name "RGB" stands for Red, Green, Blue, which are the 3 primaries (with green replacing yellow). By combining these 3 colors, any other color can be produced. Remember, this color method is only used with light sources; it does not apply to printing. CMYK Color: This is the color method based upon pigments. "CMYK" stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (its what the K stands for). Using these 4 colors, most other colors can be achieved. Unfortunately, CMYK cannot reproduce the same amount of colors as RGB can, which is why yellow-greens sometimes look a bit muddy when printed. This is the method used by printers the world over, and is also a clever way of mixing paints. Pantone (PMS) Color: This is yet another printing color method. PMS stands for "Pantone Matching System," and is a large list of specially mixed colors made by the Pantone Corporation. Instead of using CMYK to create colors, the pigments are created individually for purity. For example, if I wanted to use a Red-Violet color, I'd pick PMS 233M. The color would be made exclusively for my project and would always print exactly how I want. The only drawback to using PMS colors is that they're only useful for projects with few colors. They're also expensive.
Color theory has not developed an explicit explanation of how specific media affect color appearance: colors have always been defined in the abstract, and whether the colors were inks or paints, oils or watercolors, transparencies or reflecting prints, computer displays or movie theaters, was not considered especially relevant. Josef Albers investigated the effects of relative contrast and color saturation on the illusion of transparency, but this is an exception to the rule. A second omission has been in the effects of context on color appearance, for example the increase in tonal contrast and saturation that is produced by an increase in
scene illumination (Stevens effect and Hunt effect), or the effect on image tonal contrast induced by the lightness of the image surround (Bartleson-Breneman effect). These effects appear, for example, when art galleries spotlight a painting hung on a dimly lit wall, making the colors in the painting appear more vibrant; or when a photographic print appears to have greater contrast when displayed on a white rather than black background. Recently color scientists have made great strides in modeling and controlling the effects of material attributes of paints determining the best way to map one device gamut onto another (represent the appearance of a photographic image on a color computer monitor), and the complex effects of context—especially surround colors and luminance contrasts—on color perception. This understanding is currently embodied in the disciplines of color imaging, color reproduction, paint formulation, and so on; very little of it has made its way into contemporary color theory
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