Thursday, May 14, 2009

Colour Theory and a long time error

When I was a student of Fine Arts, I earnt money by working as a shop assistant in an art material store. One day, a customer came in and asked for the fundamental colours in gouaches. I picked out tubes in black, yellow, blue, and red.
Wrong, he said.
And he explained to me that the fundamental colours are these: instead of red, it is magenta. Instead of blue, it is cyan. Yellow is alright. If you look at the blends in the rectangle fields of the 1st picture: Clear secondary colours. In the red-blue-yellow, 2nd picture, only the orange works. The green is very dull, and violet is a catastrophe.

During my jobs as a layouter, I was employed by print shops twice. In each case, I had a good impression of colour blending. At that time, it saved a lot of money to print in two or three colours instead of the full scale. So I collected some experience in colour processing.
In every print workshop, there were tins labelled "Rot nach DIN and EURO", this means: "Red by German and European industrial norms", and so in yellow and blue, of course. These define the fundamental print colours, in the case of red it is close to magenta.
I don't know the USA norms, but I'm sure they are similar.

How was this fundamental error about colours possible?
It seems to be a matter of history. The natural pigments that the painters used were never pure enough in colour to allow this experiment. It was not until about 1856 when chemical dyes were developed (anilin dyes) that mankind was able to reproduce colours that were visible in the spectral light and in some flowers and to turn them into a paintable substance and dying material. The "red-blue-yellow"-error was still kept up in the Bauhaus and has been impoisoning the colour vision of millions of school children who have learnt this in art lessons. Millions of elementary school teachers teach this still today.

I was grateful that this graphic designer opened my eyes to the true physical nature of colours. This has had an incredible impact on my choice of hues. I hope that my readers will feel encouraged to try it out themselves and have fun discovering a wider range of colours than before.
Of course, I was talking about print colours, the CMYK range. Here, they are reproduced by RBG colours. The differences are natural.


Carmen Rose said...

You are right, and good color foundations are central to nearly everything an artist does. Thanks for the clarification.

jude said...

wow, this is interesting. i didn't know....thanks.

Judy said...

like Jude, I had no idea.....I may have to print out this post! Thanks for the lesson.


gema said...

Well, I read this and still do not have a clue. I don't understand what you are explaining as the correct colour theory just as I haven't a clue about the colour theory. I have books, don't get me wrong, good books which I do read, then I go ahead and still do what I 'feel' is right for me.....which is one of the reasons I gave up Aquarell painting.
Like they say here "Ich verstehe nur Bahnhof"! Lol.........
I haven't given up on me though, not yet anyways.

Eva said...

gema, the only reason to get involved with these things is either to be teaching or to choose a few colours if you want to try a new paint and don't want to pay for the full scale. Which red will you pick in order to be able to mix a nice orange as well as a good brillant violet? It has to be magenta, it never works with vermillion red, not even really with crimson. This is what I tried to explain.

Rayna said...

Ah, yes - CMYK when I was in publishing and used to get the four-color proofs back, they were always combinations of magenta, cyan,yellow, black. Photoshop Elements doesn't do CMYK so printers have to convert my RGB jpgs, which doesn't always prove 100% accurate. But close enough...