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In the visual arts, color theory is a body of practical guidance to color mixing and the visual impacts of specific color combinations. Although color theory principles first appeared in the writings of Leone Battista Alberti (c.1435) and the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci (c.1490), a tradition of "colory theory" began in the 18th century, initially within a partisan controversy around Isaac Newton's theory of color (Opticks, 1704) and the nature of so-called primary colors. From there it developed as an independent artistic tradition with only superficial reference to colorimetry and vision science.    More at Wikipedia  More

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Molecules and Light

Do you ever wonder how a greenhouse gas affects the climate, or why the ozone layer is important? Use the sim to explore how light interacts with molecules in our atmosphere.


Bending Light

Explore bending of light between two media with different indices of refraction. See how changing from air to water to glass changes the bending angle. Play with prisms of different shapes and make rainbows.


Cytology | How the Eye Sees Color

Focusing light onto the retina (30) causes chemical changes in the photosensitive cells that trigger nerve impulses which travel to the brain.

The retina (30) contains two forms of photosensitive cells important to visionórods and cones.   Though structurally and metabolically similar, their function is quite different.

  • Rod cells are highly sensitive to light allowing them to respond in dim light and dark conditions, however, they cannot detect color.   These are the cells which allow humans and other animals to see by moonlight, or with very little available light (as in a dark room).   This is why the darker conditions become, the less color objects seem to have.
  • Cone cells, conversely, need high light intensities to respond and have high visual acuity.   Different cone cells respond to different wavelengths of light, which allows an organism to see color.

The fovea (26), directly behind the lens,is a dip in the retina directly opposite the lens and consists of mostly densely-packed cone cells.   It is largely responsible for color vision in humans, and enables high acuity (detailed central vision), such as is necessary in reading or any other task which primarily requires looking at things. More references

Color Vision

Make a whole rainbow by mixing red, green, and blue light. Change the wavelength of a monochromatic beam or filter white light. View the light as a solid beam, or see the individual photons. http://phet.colorado.edu/en/simulation/color-vision

Color Theories

Color theory is a body of practical guidance to color mixing and the visual impact of specific color combinations.
More references

Subtractive Color Theory | R Y B

Subtractive color explains the theory of mixing paints, dyes, inks, and natural colorants to create colors which absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others.   The color that an opaque object appears to have is based on what parts of the electromagnetic spectrum are reflected by it, or conversely by what parts of the spectrum are not absorbed.   It is also called the "reflective" color theory.

Color theory was originally formulated in terms of three "primary" or "primitive" colors -- red, yellow and blue (RYB) -- because these colors were believed capable of mixing all other colors.

  • Secondary colors are the three colors that are equal distant from the primary colors.   On the traditional artist's color wheel violet, green, and orange are secondary colors. They are created from mixing two primaries.
  • Tertiary colors are the colors between each primary and secondary color.   On the traditional artist's color wheel red-violet, blue-violet, blue-green, yellow-green, yellow-orange, and red-orange are tertiary colors. They are created from mixing one primariy and a secondary.
Isaac Newton's Color Wheel

Electromagnetic Spectrum

Color Wheel

Color Wheel

Subtractive Color Theory | C M Y K | Printing Inks

  • C M Y K | Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are the "primary colors" in which all other colors are derived from.
  • See more about CMYK Color Space below
Subtractive Color Mixing

Subtractive Color Mixing

Additive Color Theory | Projected light | R G B

  • White light is a combination of many different colors, a continuum of wavelengths organized into "bands" which we label with names (blue, green, red etc).   When equal parts of each of the three major bands are combined you get white light.   White light is the sum of red, green and blue.
  • RGB | Red, Green, and Blue are the "primary colors" in which all other colors are derived from.
  • See more about RGB Color Space below

Additive Color Mixing

Additive Color Mixing

Additive Color Mixing

Blackbody Spectrum

How does the blackbody spectrum of the sun compare to visible light? Learn about the blackbody spectrum of the sun, a light bulb, an oven, and the earth. Adjust the temperature to see the wavelength and intensity of the spectrum change. View the color of the peak of the spectral curve.

Color Schemes

Colors nearest the center or the poles are most achromatic.   Colors of the same lightness and saturation are of the same nuance.   Colors of the same hue and saturation, but of different lightness, are said to be tints and shades.   Colors of the same hue and lightness, but of varying saturation, are called tones."

Analogous Color Scheme
Complementary Color Scheme
Split Complementary Color Scheme
triadic Color Scheme
Tetradic Color Scheme
Achromatic Color Scheme
Monochromatic Color Scheme
Warm and Cool Colors
Hexidecimal Color Schemes
Color Schemes in Nature

Subtractive Color Temperature

  • Visually, warm colors advance, cool colors recede.
  • Ironically the hottest radiating bodies have a cool color while the less hot bodies radiate with a warm color.
Color Temperature

Tints and Shades

  • Adding White to a pure hue is called a "tint"
  • Adding black to a pure hue is called a "shade"
  • Adding gray to a pure hue is called a "tone"
Tints and Shades

Color Space and Models

Adding a certain mapping function between the color model and a certain reference color space results in a definite "footprint" within the reference color space.   This "footprint" is known as a gamut, and, in combination with the color model, defines a new color space.   For example, Adobe RGB and sRGB are two different absolute color spaces, both based on the RGB model.

In the most generic sense of the definition above, color spaces can be defined without the use of a color model.   These spaces, such as Pantone, are in effect a given set of names or numbers which are defined by the existence of a corresponding set of physical color swatches. This focuses on the mathematical model concept.

A color model is an abstract mathematical model describing the way colors can be represented as tuples of numbers, typically as three or four values or color components (e.g. RGB and CMYK are color models).   However, a color model with no associated mapping function to an absolute color space is a more or less arbitrary color system with little connection to the requirements of any given application.

Munsell Color System
  • In colorimetry, the Munsell color system is a color space that specifies colors based on three color dimensions, hue, value (or lightness), and chroma (roughly saturation).    It was created by Professor Albert H. Munsell in the first decade of the 20th century.
  • Several earlier color order systems had placed colors into a three dimensional color solid of one form or another, but Munsell was the first to separate hue, value, and chroma into perceptually uniform and independent dimensions, and was the first to systematically illustrate the colors in three dimensional space.
  • Munsellís system, and particularly the later renotations, is based on rigorous measurements of human subjectsí visual responses to color, putting it on a firm experimental scientific basis.   Because of this basis in human visual perception, Munsellís system has outlasted its contemporary color models, and though it has been superseded for some uses by models such as CIE L*a*b* and CIECAM02, it is still in wide use today.
Munsel Color System

Munsel Color Wheel

CIE L*a*b* Color Space
  • LAB- Unlike the RGB and CMYK color models, Lab color is designed to approximate human vision.   It aspires to perceptual uniformity, and its L component closely matches human perception of lightness.   It can thus be used to make accurate color balance corrections by modifying output curves in the a and b components, or to adjust the lightness contrast using the L component.   These transformations are difficult or impossible in the RGB or CYMK spaces, which model the output of physical devices, rather than human visual perception.
  • Because Lab space is much larger than the gamut of computer displays, printers, or even human vision, a bitmap image represented as Lab requires more data per pixel to obtain the same precision as an RGB or CMYK bitmap.
  • In the 1990s, when computer hardware and software was mostly limited to storing and manipulating 8 bit/channel bitmaps, converting an RGB image to Lab and back was a lossy operation. With 16 bit/channel support now common, this is no longer such a problem.

CIE L*a*b* color space

CIE 1931 Color Space and Adobe RGB
RGB Color Space
  • This is color based upon light. Your computer monitor and television use RGB.   The name "RGB" stands for Red, Green, Blue, which are the 3 primaries (with green replacing yellow).
  • By combining these 3 colors, any other color can be produced.
  • Remember, this color method is only used with light sources; it does not apply to printing.
RGB Color Model

CMYK Color Model

  • This is the color method based upon pigments. "CMYK" stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (its what the K stands for).   Using these 4 colors (also called "process colors") most other colors can be achieved.   Unfortunately, CMYK cannot reproduce the same amount of colors as RGB can, which is why yellow-greens sometimes look a bit muddy when printed.   This is the method used by printers the world over, and is also a clever way of mixing paints.
  • Ideal image setting for your document
CMYK Color Model

CMYK Halftone Separations
PMS | Pantone Matching System
  • a large list of specially mixed colors made by the Pantone Corporation.   Instead of using CMYK to create colors, the pigments are created individually for purity.   For example, if you wanted to use a Red-Violet color, you'd pick PMS 233M.   The color would be made exclusively for your project and would always print exactly how you want.   The only drawback to using PMS colors is that they're only useful for projects with few colors.   They're also expensive.
  • Identified by code to guarantee the exact color
  • Pantone Matching System
Pantone Matching System
Hexidecimal Color Space
  • 216 colors identified to guarantee color consistancy across browser platforms.
  • Visibone Color Lab
Hexidecimal Color Space

Color Symbolism | Psychology

  • Color symbolism refers to the use of color as a symbol throughout cultures and religions.   Color psychology is a field of psychology devoted to analyzing the effect of color on human behavior and feeling. For example, symbolically, red may be used to denote danger, largely due to the fact that reds have the illusion of appearing nearer than other colors and, therefore have greater impact.   In color psychology, on the other hand the colors of danger are yellow and black.   In color symbolism, green denotes envy in many cultures, while in color psychology, it is associated with balance.
  • Referencing colors with emotions is developed by every individual when they feel an emotion and then dee a color repeated during this time.   After the connection is ingrained, the referencing can go both ways. Various cultures see color differently.   Most evidence suggest primarily the lack of a single, universal psychological reaction to a particular color.
Color Psychology | Symbolism

Color Differences?  Monitors | Printing Inks

Primary colors used in the printing process are not capable of displaying the range of colors that exists in light; therefore it is extremely difficult to emulate screen colors on paper.

  • The most important problem has been a confusion between the behavior of light mixtures, called additive color mixing, and the behavior of paint or ink (or dye or pigment) mixtures, called subtractive color mixing.   This problem arises because the absorption of light by material substances follows different rules from the perception of light by the eye.
  • A second problem has been the failure to describe the very important effects of strong luminance (lightness) contrasts in the appearance of surface colors (such as paints or inks) as opposed to light colors; "colors" such as grays, browns or ochres cannot appear in light mixtures. Thus, a strong lightness contrast between a mid valued yellow paint and a surrounding bright white makes the yellow appear to be green or brown, while a strong brightness contrast between a rainbow and the surrounding sky makes the yellow in a rainbow appear to be a fainter yellow or white.
  • A third problem has been the tendency to describe color effects holistically or categorically, for example as a contrast between "yellow" and "blue" conceived as generic colors, when most color effects are due to contrasts on three relative attributes that define all colors: lightness (light vs. dark, or white vs. black), saturation (intense vs. dull) and hue (e.g., red, yellow, green, blue or purple).   Thus, the visual impact of "yellow" vs. "blue" hues in visual design depends on the relative lightness and intensity of the hues.
Calibrated monitor

Calibrated Monitor

Red value off

Red value off

Green value off

Green value off

Blue value off

Blue value off

Color Differences

Subtractive Color Primaries

Subtractive Color Mixing



If your finished piece will be 2 or more colors, overprinting or close registration, save your files to include:

  • Page information
  • Crop marks/registration marks
  • Color separations
  • If you have bleeds: extend your bleed area outside of the cropmarks.
  • This will ensure a true bleed when we cut your finished piece

Composite file in color:

This represents finished project in Black, Blue and Red inks.

Separated file:

This separation represents what will print in Red ink.

Separated file:

This separation represents what will print in Black ink.

Separated file:

This separation represents what will print in Blue ink.

Color separated PDF’s: include crop marks, turn off compression, and embed all fonts and images used in the document.