Do yellow and blue make green?
As many a frustrated kindergartener finds out, not exactly. The truth of the physical world does not always conform so neatly to our models, no matter how entrenched those ideas might be.
This essay will explore one of these models, the artist’s color wheel — taught through centuries in the atelier as fact. But like many things passed down through rote tradition, this model could use a bit of freshening up — updated with some scientific understanding coming out of the science of neurology.
The traditional color wheel is not wrong, just missing something. A deficiency for which we cannot be blamed, just coming from our natural blind spot. The result of our exploration will reflect a model closer to how the phyiscal world operates: the CMY/RGB color wheel — a tool for analyzing color hue, value and balance among colors, and a more contemporary judgement of color opposition (complements) than the traditional color wheel.
That’s a bold claim. So, how do we get there?
Some contemporary artists are beginning to challenge the traditional artists’ color wheel, particularly in light of their own personal experience with commercial printing processes.1 Having seen how it works on the press, they are forced to reconcile this understanding of color as it relates to the traditional artist color wheel they’ve been taught in art school. Exploring these results also begins to address the challenges presented by the limitation of pigments themselves — more specifically, the constituent metals and chemicals that give pigment its color.
The goal, then, is to create a more accurate color wheel theory.2
Painting itself has changed over time with the changes in perceptions brought by scientific understanding. Think of the Impressionists and their new way perceiving light in a scene. Have you noticed how before the paintings of the Impressionists, outdoor scenes look, well, like they are happening inside somewhere?
By opening the door of the atelier and taking the easel outside, the Impressionists discovered new perspectives on how light appears on the surface of objects. After they did that, the old ways of doing things, while respected, just could not keep up with how we actually “see” reality.
The traditional color wheel comes from the philosophy that evolved with the atelier. Taught in the studios of the old masters, it is still being taught in art schools today — sometimes as a historical foundation, but too often as canon. Yet in the same way the Impressionist painters helped us perceive the light outside in a more accurate way, the traditional color wheel itself must too yield to a more contemporary understanding of how the human eye perceives what we call color.
What is color?
Visual “colors,” as we understand them, are not physical objects on a rainbow per se, but are actually symbols created in our minds as the brain interprets the wavelengths perceived by the photoreceptor cells of the eye. The visible part of the wavelengths are detected from frequencies mixed “out there” in the world by way of two primary attributes: reflective light and transmissive light.
Let’s explore the difference.
Reflective light refers to the aggregate of wavelengths that first bounces off an object before getting to your eye, like the color represented in a leaf. Transmissive light, on the other hand, is the wavelength of electromagnetic energy emitted by the source light itself, like the light from the sun before it hits the leaf.
Reflective light follows the subtractive color model: source light (like sunlight) comes in contact with the particles of an object (in this example, a leaf) and some of the wavelengths are absorbed — or subtracted — by the molecular structure of the chlorophyll. The unabsorbed wavelengths are reflected back into the world containing only the frequencies of the visible color that reaches your eye, in this case a shade of green. The reflective or subtractive paradigm is in play when you look at a painting made of pigments: the molecular structures of the various metals in the pigments are absorbing source light and reflecting back the resulting frequencies, appearing as color in your mind.
|Reflective Light||Transmissive Light|
|☇☇ ☼||☼ ➙|
|Color Primaries||cyan, magenta and yellow
|red, green and blue
|Use Cases||inks on paper;
painting on canvas
|projection on screen;
images on a computer monitor
Transmissive light, however, follows the additive color model: that is, the source light itself emerges from the black nothingness by combining — or adding — color frequencies in proportion to the aggregate of the resulting color. This is happening right now as you read this computer monitor. The brain interprets the frequency of this electromagnetic energy and assigns colors associated with that wavelength. The projected light is received directly in the eye and perceived by the brain without having bounced off something.
Yet, but is it actually color that you see?
The Curiousness of Magenta
Wavelength or frequency itself is not color, even in the so-called visible spectrum. Instead, the mind assigns a symbol to represent the wavelength in your brain. That symbol is interpreted as color. The wavelengths received in the retina are interpreted by the brain, and the brain “shows you” color. That is the structure of our world — it is actually all in our heads.
In fact, when the mind does not have a symbol to associate with the wavelength, it just makes one up. A classic example of this phenomenon is the color magenta. Magenta is not a really color. It is an extra-spectral (meaning, not on the spectrum) “substitute” for a wavelength that the mind thinks should be there, but that does not actually exist in the visible light spectrum. It is not on the rainbow. It is created entirely in the mind.3
A Contemporary Color Wheel
While it is important to keep this phenomenon in mind (and the metaphysical ramifications of making things up that are not there), for artists, the important part of the formula is that magenta “exists.” It is the missing piece of the so-called color spectrum that the traditional color wheel has not taken into account. A more contemporary color wheel, however, does take the weirdness of magenta into account. Magenta is, in fact, the new twist — an anchor of a new model that reconciles the two paradigms of color and wavelength. A model that unifies the common attributes between the additive and subtractive.
And, interestingly, it is done like this:
The outer colors of the projection are the three primary colors of the additive color model: red, green and blue (RGB). As transmissive attributes of color, these primaries are used in contemporary projection techniques (such as television and computer monitors) from a black-screen source to produce the illusion of the full color spectrum through in-retina visual mixing: all colors “seen” are actually proportional amounts of red, green and blue to simulate the other colors (orange, purple, etc).
As seen in the image above, when the RGB primaries are projected on a white screen, an curious thing happens: the secondary colors produced by the projection are cyan, magenta and yellow. And, interestingly, these are exactly the three primary colors4 of the subtractive color model. That is, the CMY of the CMYK Pantone chart (K being black) used in commercial printing processes. CMY are the primary colors of inkjet and process printing, built on the foundations of color science outlined by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861. And as graphic designers know, CMY is a much better arbiter of true color mixing than the traditional primary colors of red, blue and yellow. CMY produces more accurate and predictable color mixing results with inks on white paper.
Therefore, our more contemporary visual color wheel could have a foundation in this overlap. A new color wheel can be constructed from this resultant pattern of the two models combined, with each primary taking its place on an equidistant spot on the wheel. And, to complete the circuit, the secondary colors are created by the visual mixing of the six primary colors, in equal proportion, filling in the remaining six spaces of a 12-slice pie.
The CMY/RBG Color Wheel
Note: These files were created in the CMYK colorspace for printing on a CMYK printer, therefore the RGB files are the result of export from CMYK. This may create technical issues in RGB, depending on your usage.5 If you require accurate RGB representation, it is recommended to construct your color wheel originating within the RGB gamut. These colors are machine color. For pigment equivalents, see the color mixing chart.
The 12-color CMY/RGB color wheel (and its correlating grid) represents a valid visual model of color for the purposes of studying hue, value and balance. It also improves upon the traditional artists’ color wheel in terms of visual color complements.
Last updated December 14, 2015
1 Naismith, Scott. "Colour Theory: The Truth About The Colour Wheel," YouTube. February 18, 2012. Video file. Accessed December 14, 2015.
2 Jusko, Donald A. "The Real Color Wheel". Real Color Wheel for Artists, July 25, 2005. Accessed April 4, 2016.
3 Mould, Steve. "The Curious Case of Magenta." Steve Mould (blog). October 23, 2009. Accessed December 14, 2015.
4 Because the mind assigns color based on wavelength — and all wavelengths are equal on the spectrum of frequency — it has been argued that the concept of “primary color” is really just an arbitrary notion outside an economic, mathematical or technological need to minimize the number of components required to produce all other colors. For more information, refer to: MacEvoy, Bruce. "Imaginary or Imperfect Primaries: Do Primary Colors Exist?" Handprint. Revised August 1, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2015.
5 It has been my experience that when you convert colors from RGB to CMYK,
you cannot convert back an retain the original RGB hues of your image.
Likewise, when exporting from CMYK to RGB will not create the exact RGB equivalent.
For more information about the RGB vs. CMYK colorspace, refer to:
Gendelman, Vladimir. "RGB vs CMYK vs PMS: Deciphering Design’s Confusing Color Jargon." Company Folders (blog). July 19, 2013. Accessed December 14, 2015.
Seeley, Justin. "RGB vs. CMYK". Lynda.com. July 5, 2012. video lecture. Accessed December 14, 2015.
Adobe Support Community. "Convert image from RGB to CMYK and back to RGB." Adobe forums, posted January 15, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2015.
6 The traditional artists’ color wheel is also incomplete in this regard, contributing to the frustration of many beginning artists. (Yellow and blue do not make green).
7 MacEvoy, Bruce. "An Artists’s Color Wheel" Handprint. Revised August 1, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2015.