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What Happened to Red, Blue, Yellow?

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So we have discussed selection and use of color with regards to paint; however, it is clearly evident when creating graphic design images, that the color system is a whole new beast. Well let’s take a closer look at that.

In our previous article Compliments, Contrasts and Hues, Oh My! We discussed the color wheel in its more traditional form, one that you were likely taught in elementary school. However, when looking at color selectors in the digital world, the primary and secondary colors are no longer based off the red, blue, yellow system. Why is that?

Colors themselves are just a fragment of light, and when a pure white light is shone through a prism we are able to see the full spectrum of color. At quick glance, one can easily see why a blue, red, yellow primary color wheel would be created as these colors seem most vibrant and easily seen.


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However, if we take a look at the actual full spectrum of color, we notice that green actually consumes more of the spectrum than yellow, hence a varied version of the color wheel in which red, green, and blue (indigo) are primary colors.

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Now having said this, when you go to your color selector in your preferred graphic design program, you will understand the varying levels of RGB (red, green, blue.)

You can also note that in the same way that the traditional color wheel has secondary colors, so does the RGB color wheel. These secondary colors are named cyan (a light blue color), magenta (a pink color), and yellow.

You may be now asking, well why is my graphic design program in RGB but my printer toner is CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black), and that is a great question. Red, green and blue, as you remember make up a majority of the full color spectrum, so when added together they create colors that are closer to white, as if pushing the rainbow back through the prism. This is why they are termed additive colors, and also why when mixing just two colors together you get their secondary colors that are lighter and closer to white. Remember all colors equal white and no color equals black. This additive property makes this color system the best for use on light-emitting devices, such as computers, TVs, phones, etc.

So then, when something does not have light emitting, such as a printed object, we must use pigments to create color. This is called subtractive colors. In printed objects, what we are seeing is the reflection of light off the surface (rather than light coming from behind the color as with a TV or computer screen), so in order to create colors the pigments must allow only certain portions of the full color spectrum to reflect. So a pure red pigment would absorb all green and blue, blue all green and red, and green all blue and red, resulting in dark muddy colors. So by printing in secondary colors we are able to absorb the visual spectrum more precisely (cyan is the secondary color of blue and green and it would therefore only absorb red, yellow the secondary of green and red would absorb blue, and magenta the secondary of red and blue would absorb green.)

Now, it is also important to keep in mind that other factors effect color in digital media just as much as they do your paint samples. Saturation, as with paint, refers to how much of the color is present, the less saturated the more muted or dull, or the greater amount of grey is added. The shade or tint value that I spoke of with paint can be modified as well by understanding a few different terms in graphic design programs, value, brightness or lightness. HSV and HSB (hue, saturation, value and hue saturation, brightness) are essentially interchangeable, where with hue you are selecting your color from the spectrum, saturation you are determining how much grey to add, and value and brightness you are determining how light or dark a color is). HSL (hue, saturation, lightness) is calculated differently by the design programs but also provides you with these same three variances in color modification.

Now that you have an understanding of the different color theories that are used in graphic design (over the traditional color wheel generally referred to when choosing colors outside of graphic design) the choice of colors that you use have a pretty similar effect. Choosing contrasting colors (across from each other on the color wheel) or complimentary colors (next to each other on the color wheel) so long as a similar saturation and value/brightness are used, generally are very appealing. For more in-depth theory on graphic design color choices, be on the lookout for future blog posts with more detailed information.