WHY STUDY COLOR THEORY?
If you are involved in the creation or design of visual documents, an understanding of color will help when incorporating it into your own designs. Choices regarding color often seem rather mystical, as many seem to base decisions on nothing other than “it looks right.” Although often told I had an eye for color, the reason why some colors worked together while others did not always intrigued me and I found the study of color theory fascinating.
While attending the University of Minnesota I enrolled in almost every course I could from different departments: graphic design, interior design, and fine arts. During my studies, I learned that there were 2 main reasons why scholars investigated color—the first involved the communication of colors; the other involved the application of color.
What is red? Candy apple red, blood red, catsup red, rose red… to try and communicate a specific hue is difficult without some sort of coding system. Early in the 1900’s, Albert Munsell, a professor at an art school in Boston developed a color system which offered a means to name colors. With a published system, people could be specific about which red they were referring. Munsell’s system has been reworked for today’s use with the Pantone color system, TRUEMATCH, CIE systems and others.
Pantone® Warm Red
With respect to the arts, color was part of the realistic, visual representation of form, but one group of painters abandoned the traditional practices regarding color in painting. This group of artists were influenced by Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin. Led by Henri Matisse, they were known as the Fauves, or “the wild beasts.” Their exuberant use of brilliant hues seem to disregard imitative color1. Whereas other artists had used color as the description of an object, the Fauves let color become the subject of their painting. A painting in the “Fauvist Manner” was one that related color shapes; rather than unifying a design with line, compositions sought an expressiveness within the relationships of the whole. This turn from tradition brought an integrity to color in that color was regarded on its own merit.
The next several pages of this site offer a tutorial regarding color theory. After reviewing the information, I hope you will see that the successful use of color is not at all mystical, and that by understanding a few things about color, it is possible to incorporate into your designs with a confidence based on tested concepts and methods.
Color is the perceptual characteristic of light described by a color name. Specifically, color is light, and light is composed of many colors—those we see are the colors of the visual spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Objects absorb certain wavelengths and reflect others back to the viewer. We perceive these wavelengths as color.
A color is described in three ways: by its name, how pure or desaturated it is, and its value or lightness. Although pink, crimson, and brick are all variations of the color red, each hue is distinct and differentiated by its chroma, saturation, intensity, and value.
Chroma, intensity, saturation and luminance/value are inter-related terms and have to do with the description of a color.
Chroma: How pure a hue is in relation to gray
Saturation: The degree of purity of a hue.
Intensity: The brightness or dullness of a hue. One may lower the intensity by adding white or black.
Luminance / Value: A measure of the amount of light reflected from a hue. Those hues with a high content of white have a higher luminance or value.
Shade and tint are terms that refer to a variation of a hue.
Shade: A hue produced by the addition of black.
Tint: A hue produced by the addition of white.
Available color systems are dependent on the medium with which a designer is working. When painting, an artist has a variety of paints to choose from, and mixed colors are achieved through the subtractive color method. When a designer is utilizing the computer to generate digital media, colors are achieved with the additive color method.
When we mix colors using paint, or through the printing process, we are using the subtractive color method. Subtractive color mixing means that one begins with white and ends with black; as one adds color, the result gets darker and tends to black.
The CMYK color system is the color system used for printing.
Those colors used in painting—an example of the subtractive color method.
If we are working on a computer, the colors we see on the screen are created with light using the additive color method. Additive color mixing begins with black and ends with white; as more color is added, the result is lighter and tends to white.
The RGB colors are light primaries and colors are created with light.
Percentages of red, green, & blue light are used to generate color on a computer screen.
WORKING WITH SYSTEMS
The Visible spectrum consists of billions of colors, a monitor can display millions, a high quality printer is only capable of producing thousands, and older computer systems may be limited to 216 cross-platform colors.
Reproducing color can be problematic with regard to printed, digital media, because what we see is not what is possible to get. Although a monitor may be able to display ‘true color’ (16,000,000 colors), millions of these colors are outside of the spectrum available to printers. Since digital designs are generated using the RGB color system, colors used in those designs must be part of the CMYK spectrum or they will not be reproduced with proper color rendering. Working within the CMYK color system, or choosing colors from Pantone© palettes insures proper color rendering.
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