11 October, 2007

Color Theory

There are about as many color theories as there are scholars with a dollar. Which one is the best? The one I was taught, of course.

A theory of color is an organized observation of the phenomenon of color. It serves the practical value of giving us guidance in "coloring" things, and in understanding aspects and purposes of color. Mixing paint. Illuminating computer images. Object recognition. Does it serve the artist to know about color theory, or to hold an opinion about which theory he finds correct? I tend to think the answer is no. More on why I feel that way later. For now, lets evaluate and critique what things are being said about color in the academic world.

The present day, which is very different from "my own day", is dominated by the computer. The Information Age, I have heard it called. I fear many young people are being brought up with the prejudices that the computer gives to the understanding of color. They are taught that the three primary colors are red, green and blue. If this is you, I challenge you to go get those three colors in jars of acrylic paint, and mix yellow for me.

If we dig deeper, we find out that these three colors (called RGB), when projected as light, produce a "white" light. Be still my beating heart. Now, to be fair, the digital media are the new and cutting edge direction of our civilization. Digital art will be, and maybe already is, a major contributor to the direction of contemporary art. At my gut level, true to the caveman that I am, I am made weak by the idea that projected light will be our new world of color. It is too limiting, in my opinion. Too flat, pardon the pun!

Proponents of the computer models of color argue that pigment mixing is imperfect to produce colors, and that the CRT screen is easier to use for them in achieving various colors, especially if they wish to create equal intensities or values of a given color. This is a straw man. Colors for the artist are pigment based, not mixed from three primaries alone. Yes, there is craft to achieving the range of colors. But, the science of making a full range of colors as say, tubes of paint, is not dependent upon mixing alone. It is tied to available pigments - environmentally driven, if you will.

Brown University has the following site which purports to represent the e-based and the pigment based theories of color. After the first page, you'll begin to see the bias preferring the RGB color model, though.

Conversely, here is a color theory site that digs into the shortfalls of e-based color production. Thanks, Don Jusko. See how he compares the RGB model for values of yellow, and the way an artist darkens the same yellow. He indicts the inability of the RGB scale to create Naples yellow, for instance.

I trust that if you have read this post closely, you will see that I am mainly giving you an introduction to the arguments that exist regarding current color theory. There are many more theories of color , and all a fascinating read. I hope to post and comment on them in the next few days. There will be some "out of pocket" time for me, as I will be hosting Deer Camp starting tonight.

We will be digging into the artist's theories of color, the value of these theories and relative merits of each. My opinion? Freely given, of course!


Arielle said...

Very interesting post! I have been interested in color theory for a long time and have learned many different ones. I found your post insightful.

Casey Klahn said...

Thanks for reading, Arielle.

Really just a lot of my opinions, which are freely spewed. I just want the current generation to have some rounded knowledge on color, since the RGB model is so pervasive now.

Meanwhile, I badly need some computer skills...

Abstract Expressionism, Art Criticism, Artists, Colorist Art, Drawing, History, Impressionism, Modern Art, Painting, Pastel, Post Impressionism