01_ColorWheel

image source 

02_ColorWheelNewton

In 1666 the first color wheel was invented in by Sir Isaac Newton best known for his theories on gravity, motion, and light. (His theories on light are detailed in his seminal volume Optiks). Newton used a triangular prism to split a beam of white into a rainbow, proving that light is composed of a spectrum of hues – ROYGBIV. When he wrote down the different hues he made an influential decision to create a circle by connecting the opposite ends of the spectrum red and violet. (Unsurprisingly, if you spin the color wheel quickly, you’ll see white as the colors blend together.) Newton believed colors shared harmonious relationships with one another and went so far as to assign musical notes to each hue. Within this color wheel he rotated geometric shapes to identify different types of relationships.

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Runge

In 1807 painter Philip Otto Runge reimagined the color wheel as a color sphere by painting a color globe using three primaries plus black and white, complete with cross-sectioning.

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Munsell

In 1989 Albert Henry Munsell created a three-dimensional model of color in the form of a central cylinder graded from black to white surrounded by a ring of possible hues.

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Adobe

Adobe’s Color Wheel (Window > Color), one of the most used color wheels today, advances this tradition by refining the arrangement of complementary hues from subtractive (pigment or dye) to additive (light) ones, making color theory more precise. While sadly it does not offer a three-dimensional model, it offers other two dimensional graphs, including its classic square that plots all permutations lightness and saturation of a single hue plus a side-by-side rainbow slider to change the hue and gives numerical values for a given hue in four different color spaces – HSB, LAB, RGB, and CMYK.

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Chromix ColorThink

You can find virtual 3D color wheels in programs like Apple’s Color Sync which is designed to show and compare the shape of different color spaces or in Chromix’s Color which can also plot an image within the virtual volume. These models are even more informative because they show that color is not spherical but shaped more like a teardrop. One day we may be able to plot various shapes within them to design new color relationships and to more precisely identify the color relationships within existing images.

Follow up with Why Painters’ And Photographers’ Color Wheels Differ.

Read more in my Color Theory resources.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

ColorWheel

spectrum

The language used to describe color has a long storied history; sometimes tied to association, sometimes tied to manufacture, sometimes tied to marketing. What it lacks in precision it makes up for in expression. You’ll enjoy exploring this collection if you’re trying to find out what color a word refers to or if you’re looking for the right word to describe a color.

Red

apple, beet, blooming, brick, blood, blush, burgundy, burning, carmine, cerise, cinnabar, claret, cherry, cochineal, coral, crimson, damask, fire engine, fire hydrant, flame, florid, fox, garnet, glowing, gules, lipstick, madder, maroon, pink, poppy, rose, rouge, rubicund, ruby, rufous, rust, russet, sanguine, scarlet, strawberry, tomato, vermillion, wine

Pink

amaranth, blush, bubblegum, carnation, champagne, coral, crepe, flamingo, flesh, fuscia, hot, lemonade, lipstick, mary kay, neon, peach, powder, puce, punch, rose, salmon, taffy, tickle me, watermelon

Orange

apricot, basketball, burnt, cantaloupe, carrot, chanterelle, chestnut, citrus, copper, coral, creamsicle, flaming, fiery, ginger, gold, marmalade, merigold, minium, monarch, neopolitan, orangatan, papaya, peach, pumpkin, salmon, salamander, sandstone, sherbert, soda, starfish, straw, sunflower, sunrise, squash, tangerine, tiger, yam

Yellow

amber, banana, blonde, ash blonde, bottle blonde, strawberry blonde, bumblebee, butter, buttermilk, butterscotch, canary, corn, cream, daffodil, dijon, egg nog, flaxen, gamboge, golden, goldenrod, honey, imperial, indian, lemon, macaroon, medallion, mustard, naples, neon, ocher, orpiment, parmesan, pineapple, pollen, sandy, saffron, straw, topaz, tow-colored, tuscan, wheaten

Green

absinthe, acid, apple, army, artichoke, avocado, aquamarine, basil, bosky, bottle, celadon, chartreuse, clover, copper, crocodile, fern, grass, emerald, evergreen, fir, forest, grass, jade, jungle, juniper, kale, kelly, leaf, lime, lincoln, lush, malachite, mint, moss, neon, olive, parakeet, pea, pear, pickle, pine, sage, sap, sea, seafoam, seaweed, shamrock, spinach, spring, terre verte, verdant, verdigris, vert, viridian

Blue

admiral, agean, arctic, aquamarine, azure, baby, berry, beryl, bice, bright, beryl, cambridge, cerulean, cobalt, cornflower, cupreous, cyan, deep, denim, egyptian, electrix, erubescent, frost, ice, incarnadine, indanthrone, indigo, lapis lazuli, midnight, navy, oxford, peacock, persian, prussian, robin’s egg, royal, sapphire, saxe, sea, slate, sky, spruce, steel, teal, titian, turkish, turquoise, ultramarine, vivid

Indigo

azure, blueberry, deep, glastum, indigotin, midnight, navy, prussian, ultramarine, woad, zaffre

Violet

amaranthine, amethyst, archil, berry, boysenberry, eggplant, grape, heather, heliotrope, iris, jam, lavender, lilac, mauve, magenta, mulberry, orchid, periwinkle, perse, plum, pomegranite, purple, raisin, royal, sangria, violet, violaceous, wine

Brown

allspice, auburn, bay, bran, beige, biscuit, bister, bottle, brick, brindle, bronze, brunette, buff, burnt sienna, burnt umber, cafe au lait, camel, caramel, carob, cayenne, cedar, chestnut, chocolate, cider, cinnamon, cocoa, coffee, copper, drab, dun, dust, ecru, espresso, fallow, fawn, ginger, gingerbread, granola, greige, hazel, henna, hickory, kasha, khaki, leather, liver, madiera, mahogany, mocha, mousy, mud, mushroom, nut, nutmeg, oak, oatmeal, ochre, peanut, pecan, penny, puce, russet, rust, saddle, sallow, sand, sepia, sorrel, spice, tan, taupe, tawny, terra-cotta, toast, tortilla, umber, wheaten, whey, wood

White

alabaster, albino, allysum, antique, bone, bright, brilliant, chalk, chantilly, chiffon, cloud, coconut, cotton, daisy, dove, eggshell, gesso, ghost, putty, hoary, isabelline lead, lace, lily, linen, lucent, milk, mother of pearl, parchment, pearl, porcelain, powder, pure, salt, snow, swan, star, titanium, vanilla, whisper, winter

Gray

aluminum, argentine, ash, cinereal, charcoal, cloud, coin, cool, cove, clam, dolphin, dove, dusky, elephant, fog, fossil, frost, graphite, grizzled, gunmetal, gunpowder, harbor, hippopotamus, hoary, lead, iron, metal, mouse, neutral, nickle, oyster, payne’s, pearl, pebble, peppery, pewter, platinum, pigeon, powder, rhino, rice, sere, silver, tin, sidewalk, slate, smoke, squirrel, steel, stone, thunder, warm

Black

atramentous, calciginous, charcoal, coal, crepuscular, crow, dusky, ebony, flint, grease, ink, kohl, lamp, lava, jet, leather, mars, melanoid, metal, midnight, obsidian, oil, onyx, piceous, pitch, raven, sable, slate, soot, spider, stygian, tartarean, tenebrous

Contrast this with the simple and precise numerical language of HSL.

Read more in my Color Theory resources.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

 

Illumination XXX

The vast majority of resources you’ll find for creating successful color palettes, whether in print or online, will catalog a great number of compelling color combinations with some rhyme but little reason. When you look at them, not understanding the logic behind their choices, it’s tempting to think that anything goes. (And it might in certain contexts and for the specific reasons. But which ones?) Sometimes they drift into color psychology but quickly become so subjective they lose all sense of objectivity or universality. The best of them identify visual dynamics that you can use to exert some influence over the direction takes in and gives to your images.

What I’m offering you here is different. This is a strategy. Not a rule but a principle.

It can be boiled down to one sentence, “Make one element of color dominant by putting more contrast in it.”

With only three elements of color, this rubric offers you three main palettes that you can draw endless permutations from plus two notable exceptions.

When you reflect on your choice of palette, you’ll gain insights into the themes contained of your images.

Before I detail these five palettes …

It helps to understand some of the dynamics of color. Good things come in threes; there are three types of color, three elements of color, and three kinds of contrast.

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Antarctica_2009-LXV

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3 Types Of Color

There are three types of color – ideal, ambient, and synthetic.


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Suffusion VIII

You may not think there’s a problem. You may think you know the difference. It’s obvious right? But is it? Do you? After a lifetime spent in the arts, I find photographers’ ability to describe color woefully limited, and this is never truer than when describing “black-and-white” images.

Most antique processes are black and white, right? Certainly, silver gelatin is black and white. But what if you tone it? Is a platinum print black and white or brown and white? Is a cyanotype black and white or blue and white? What about hand-tinted photographs? They were black and white but then they became colorful again, but it’s a different kind of color, isn’t it? And if only a little color is added is it still black and white? At what point does an image become black and white?

The problem is that having only two terms – color and black and white – for a wide array of color palettes limits not only our communication but more importantly our perception and thinking.


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ColorWheel_Apple_425

The photographers' color wheel rendered by Apple.

ColorWheel_Itten_425

The painters' color wheel painted by Johannes Itten.

In color theory, one of the primary uses of color wheels is to plot complementary colors.

Painters and photographers use this information to create neutral colors. Painters mix complementary colors to get more neutral hues. Photographers add complementary colors to remove color casts, making neutral colors appear more neutral.

But photographers and painters apply different complements. Photographers identify three primaries and complements; red and cyan, green and magenta, blue and yellow. Painters identify three primaries and complements; red and green, blue and orange, yellow and purple. Why do they use different complements? Painters have to address the impurities in the pigments they’re mixing. Photographers deal with pure light.

From a practical standpoint both types of artists learn to achieve the effects they want to achieve. From a conceptual or theoretical standpoint the difference is significant – and they share the same theories but their application of those theories differs. Photographers and painters should talk to each other more.

Photographers can enrich their understanding of color if they become familiar with the longer richer history painters have had with color; and at the same time painters can refine their theories and produce stronger effects by using photographic complements.

Physically and biologically our eyes do specific things. By using maximum hue contrast, complementary colors in close proximity to one another create optical effects: they make each other look more intense; any lines between them becomes more pronounced, often producing a light line, which can appear to flash if the eye moves back and forth across it; if made very small (like scanned pixels or printed halftone dots) they average to a neutral color. Artists use these effects to make more powerful visual statements.

Optically photographic complements are correct. You can test and prove this yourself. To do this, take advantage of the retinal after images your eyes produce. Simply stare at a solid patch of color for more than twenty seconds and then shift your gaze to a neutral field of color, like a white wall. The color you’ll see will be the photographic complement. So, if you want to take maximum advantage of the optical effects generated by complementary colors, choose photographic complements.

Finally, color theory can be very useful. Artists frequently create consistent color structures (some call them color harmonies), much like the tonal structures or scales musicians. They often use color wheels to plot these relationships (not unlike a musician plots a circle of fifths to identify musical harmonies). They draw geometric figures inside a circle of color to identify regular intervals between the colors chosen; straight lines for pairs, triangles for trios, rectangles for quartets, etc. There’s no ideal structure. Different structures generate different effects, both optical and psychological – and it’s useful to know what those are. What matters most is that a color structure is created, rather than color chaos. The colors identified as complements define a color wheel. Once again, because of the impurities in pigments, painters distort their color wheels (expanding the oranges and reducing the cool blues) to help them identify which colors to mix to make neutral or more neutral colors, but the unintended consequence of doing this is that they plot color structures on a distorted color wheel. Their ideal theories are skewed by physical imperfections.

Long after his death, it was noted that pointillist painter Seurat, who started a whole school of painters who used broken bits of complementary colors rather than blended less intense colors, could have achieved even richer visual effects if he had adjusted his color choices. Viewers experience visual effects with their eyes. And the photographer’s color wheel is aligned with our eyes.

Learn more about Color Theory here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.


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lessons_reading2-1

What is color theory? It’s a language and set of concepts that’s useful for describing and creating color relationships.

Color management helps you get consistent colors. Color adjustment helps you change colors. Color theory helps you choose colors.

I’ve studied color all of my life - and it’s always rewarding.

Here’s a roundup of the best books I’ve found on color theory.

Reid

Lori Reid’s The Color Box is a great place to start with color theory. It’s neither definitive nor deep but it does a great job of surveying many approaches to understanding color.

Albers

Josef Albers’s Theory and Interaction of Color is the definitive work for creating a hands-on understanding of essential optical effects.

Itten

Johannes Itten’s Art Of Color (an expansion of his The Elements Of Color) is clearer and wider-ranging than Albers' similar book.

Birren

Faber Birren’s Creative Color discusses ways of creating effects (like iridescence and pearlescence) that few other resources touch on.

Wong

Wucius Wong's Principles Of Color Design shows the links between color and other compositional devices.

Livingstone

Margaret Livingstone's Vision And Art details the biology behind the effects artists create.

Find more recommended Color Reading here.

Learn more with these Color Theory here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.


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