Primary Color Models

By Mark Fought

Color affects us in many ways throughout the course of our lives.  In studying the psychology of color for example, blue has been shown to lower blood pressure and red to increase blood pressure, yellow stimulates the brain, pink soothes the nerves, violet stimulates creativity and spirituality and green encourages balance and growth. The data on this subject is extensive and one could devote a lifetime studying color and its effects.  However, it all originates with two basic color models:

1. Additive, the primary colors of Light (Red, Green, Blue)

2. Subtractive, the primary colors of Pigments (Magenta, Cyan, and Yellow)

Some of you may be asking the question, “Where is the red, yellow and blue model?” as on the artist’s color wheel (invented in 1666 by Sir Isaac Newton).  It still exists, but there have been some updates within the last 347 years. We now define color as either reflection or absorption in reference to how light wavelengths interact with surfaces.  With the human eye, the model is shifting to magenta, cyan and yellow.  I will note that the red, yellow, and blue color wheel model is still predominately accepted by artists in mixing pigments. So, what is the difference between reflection (additive) and absorption (subtractive)?

The primary colors for the additive model are red, green and blue. These are the primary colors of light, as in what one might view through a prism or in a rainbow, for example. It is from combinations of these three colors, red light, yellow light and green light, that all other colors are derived. Additive colors are used in light sources such as TV’s or computer monitors to create the range of colors that the eye can see. In the additive model all colors combined will result in white, and the absence of light will result in black. These colors are wavelengths in the light color spectrum and tend to be from transmitted or projected light.

What, then, is the difference between additive and subtractive color primaries? Well, subtractive is the color model of pigments.  Pigments are defined as “a dry insoluble substance, usually pulverized, which when suspended in a liquid becomes a paint or ink”.  (The ancient Egyptians made a brown pigment from the pulverized remains of mummies that was popular into the 19th century). Pigment or subtractive colors are Magenta, Yellow and Cyan, generally simplified as red, yellow and blue, and are produced when using the colors from reflective light, as when mixing paint or using a color printer.  Here is the big difference: these colors are not made by adding colors together, but by actually subtracting or taking colors away- taking red away emits a bluish hue (cyan), taking green away emits a reddish hue (magenta) and taking blue away which emits the color yellow.  In effect, when one mixes pigments they are taking white light, which has all the colors of the light spectrum, and, depending upon what is happening on the surface, absorbing certain light waves and reflecting others to leave the desired color. Also, in contrast with the colors of light, in pigments all colors combined will result in black, and no color is white.

Sounds complicated doesn’t it?  Well, all that most of us really need to know is that the primary colors for mixing pigments for painting or printing are not really different from what Sir Isaac Newton showed us in his color wheel 347 years ago.  So, there isn’t any pressure to remember all that you have learned above- just have fun mixing your paints or inks.  Also, don’t forget that Keeton’s has an extensive supply of paints, inks, and all art supplies.  Be creative!

Color Blog6

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