Tag Archives: colour mixing

why I don’t like the colour wheel

There are many reasons why I don’t like colour wheels of the type shown below:

The first reason is because it perpetuates the myth that the subtractive primaries are red, yellow and blue whereas the fact is that red, yellow and blue produces a rather small gamut of colours. It is certainly not the best choice of subtractive primaries though it is taught as dogma in many art and design schools and throughout children’s education. The problem is that whenever two colours are mixed together there is saturation loss; that is, the resultant mixture ends up being more desaturated than the two components were. The saturation loss is greatest when mixing colours on the opposite side of the colour circle where the resultant mixture can be almost grey. However, for certain choices of primaries, the saturation loss is greater than for others. If red, yellow and blue are used as the primaries then of course it is possible to generate any other hue. However, there is significant saturation loss and the above colour wheel gives completely the wrong impression. It suggests that mixing blue and yellow together, for example, results in a really bright vivid green.

The reality of pigment mixing is much more like the triangular colour wheel shown below:

In the above diagram it can be seen that mixing together yellow and blue results in a really muddy dark green. The purple resulting from mixing blue and red is almost black!! Now it is possible to mix together a blue and a yellow to get a better green. For example, mixing a greenish blue with a yellow will give a much more vivid green. Mixing a bluish red with a greenish blue will result in a lovely purple. We have a name for a greenish blue and a blueish red – we call them cyan and magenta. A much better colour gamut is obtained if we start with the primaries, cyan, magenta and yellow.

Footnote: Some people may look at the triangular colour wheel and think that the reason the colours are dull is that the red, yellow, and blue primaries used are not ‘pure’ enough. Nothing could be farther from the truth. If it was possible to make really vivid and bright red and blue pigments then the resultant colour gamut would be even smaller. Fundamentally, red, yellow and blue just don’t make good subtractive primaries.

RYB primaries

There are two phrases I keep seeing written down all over the internet that cause my blood pressure to increase.

The first is that the colour primaries are red, yellow and blue (RYB). And the second is that the primaries are colours that cannot be made by mixing other colours. Neither of these statements are true, of course.

The first statement makes no distinction between additive colour mixing (of lights) and subtractive colour mixing (of paints and inks) but subtractive colour mixing is normally implied. However, RYB is a relatively poor choice for three colour primaries. The range of colours that can be produced is actually quite small. For most painters and artists it doesn’t matter because very few work in just three primaries – if they did so they would probably be frustrated by the small gamut of colours achievable. Many artists (painters) will use 10 or more basic colours to mix their palette. However, there is a group of people who care passionately about the gamut of colours that can be obtained by mixing three colour primaries – that is the people who work for companies such as HP and Canon. These companies make CMYK printers for the consumer market and their jobs depend upon consumers liking their printers. They understand that the largest gamut (in subtractive mixing) can be obtained if the primaries are cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY). The teaching of RYB as the (subtractive) primaries should be stopped. It’s already gone on for far too long.

One reason I don’t like the teaching of RYB as being the subtractive primaries, in addition to the fact that it is wrong, is that it confuses people who are trying to learn colour theory. This is because red, yellow and blue seem to be quite pure colours and this encourages people to hold the second belief I don’t like which is that the primaries are pure colours that cannot be mixed from other colours. If people understood that the primaries were CMY it would be less tempting to hold this belief about the purity of the primaries. Of course, if you make a palette of colours of three primaries then it is true that no mixture of two or more colours from that palette can match any of the primaries. However, there are other colours (that are outside the gamut of the primary system) that could be mixed together to match the primaries. This false notion of purity confuses the real issue – that is, that the subtractive primaries are cyan, magenta and yellow because the additive primaries are red, green and blue. Look at this picture below:

The additive primaries are red, green and blue and the secondaries are cyan, magenta and yellow. Correspondingly, the subtractive primaries are cyan, magenta and yellow and the subtractive secondaries are red, green and blue. Simple.

I wrote about this before so for a slightly different perspective see my earlier post.

Perhaps I am so agitated about it today because I am just watching England getting trounced by Ireland at rugby when the Grand Slam was so tantalisingly close. Or maybe I will feel just the same tomorrow.