Tag Archives: education

additive colour mixing

There are – broadly speaking – two types of colour mixing: additive colour mixing and subtractive colour mixing. Subtractive colour mixing relates to how inks, paints, dyes etc add together to form different colours; additive colour mixing refers to how light-emissive colour devices create colours. So we’re talking about how computer monitors work or how phone displays work.

The essential principle behind additive colour mixing is that we can mix together three colours – called colour primaries – and create a surprising range of colours. See my earlier post – http://colourware.wordpress.com/2009/07/08/what-is-a-colour-primary/ – for further details about colour primaries. The additive primaries are red, green and blue. Is there anything special about these three colours that justifies their use as the primaries? No, apart from the fact that if you use red, green and blue as the additive primaries you get a large gamut (range of colours that can be produced).  There is no reason why you couldn’t use orange, purple and turqiose as the additive primaries – it’s just the range of colours that could be created would be unsatisfactorily small. And nobody would like that!

So, we have red, green and blue as the additive primaries. The figure below illustrates how additive colour mixing works. Imagine that we have three projection lamps at the back of a hall – one has a red filter and so produces a beam of red light, and the other two use filters to produce green and blue beams. We project these onto a white screen and get three circles of light (one, red, one green and one blue). We then move the angles of the projectors so that the circles of light overlap. We get something that looks rather like this:


Where the red and green light overlap we get yellow. We get magenta and cyan for the other two binary mixtures. So,

red + green = yellow

red + blue = magenta

green + blue = cyan

And if we mix all three primaries we can achieve white (or other neutral colours). The primaries could be single wavelengths of light – so we could use a primary at, say, 700 nm (for the red) and one at 450 nm (blue) and one at 530 nm (green). In practice, most devices (CRTs, LCDs etc) don’t use single-wavelength primaries since it would be hard to create bright screens (gamuts are 3-D not just 2-D) but in principle could do so. It’s also important to note that different devices and different manufacturers use slightly different primaries.

But let’s imagine for a second that the three primaries used in the pictuire above are at 450 nm, 530 nm and 700 nm. Green light (530 nm) and red light (700 nm) additively mix together and generate yellow. When this happens what is being mixed and where does this mixing take place? Take a few moments to consider this before reading on.

Notice I said that they additively mix to generate yellow – I specifically avoided saying that they mix to generate yellow light. If we look at the part of the screen that is yellow we would see that we have some light at 700 nm and some at 530 nm. The wavelengths are not mixed; they don’t mix together to generate some third wavelength of light such as 575 nm (I choose this wavelength since monochromatic yellow light is about 575 nm). So no physical mixing takes place other than – I suppose one could argue – that the red and green lights are mixed in the sense that they are spatially coincident. But that’s not really mixing, for me, and certainly doesn’t even begin to explain why we have the sensation of yellow when we look at these wavelengths together.

So when we say that the red and green lights are mixed together to create yellow we should be aware that no phsyical mixing takes place. Indeed, one could argue that mixing is really the wrong word to use. Though as I write this I am struggling to think of a better one – suggestions on a postcard please.

When we look at the mixture of red and green light we see yellow – but the eye is still receiving the indivual wavelengths of red and green light. However, the visual response to this is that yellow is perceived. Indeed, a carefully composed mixture of red and green light could produce a yellow that is visually indistinguishable from yellow monochromatic light; but physically the mixture would still consist of light at 530 nm and light at 700 nm. If mixing occurs at all in any real sense it is in the perceptual mechanisms of the visual system. Indeed, at the heart of this matter is the way in which our visual pigments respond to light …. more about that another time.

What is a colour primary?

I try to keep my blogs short. But this is going to be difficult!

Let’s start with what a primary is not. The primaries are often quoted as being red, yellow and blue. And on the BBC website – of all places – it says “Primary colours are three key colours – Red, Yellow and Blue. They cannot be made from any other colour”. For the BBC site visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/homes/design/colour_wheel.shtml.

The statement that primary colours cannot be made from any other colour is simply not true. Further, it gives the mistaken impression that there is something special about these primaries (red, yellow and blue) that makes them stand apart from the other colours. Another false statement that one often sees even in quite scholarly work is that any colour can be made by the mixture of three primary colours.

What is true is that if we select three appropriate colours and mix them together we can make a suprising range of colours. These colours – let’s call them primaries – can combine to make a huge range of different colours but unfortunately there are no three primaries that can be selected such that in mixture they can create any other colour. Depending upon the choice of primaries the range (or gamut) of colours that can be created in mixture is larger or smaller. What makes a good set of primaries? Well, I think it is reasonable to say that a good set of primaries is one where the gamut of colours that can be created is large; indeed, I would argue that the optimal primaries are those that create the largest possible gamut.

There are certain sets of primaries that can easily be predicted to give a small gamut. For example, if any of the primaries are dull and desaturated then the gamut will not be very big. Also, if the three primaries are similar to each other then the primaries are not likely to be a good set. And finally, if it is possible to combine two of the primaries together to make the other one then the gamut will be tiny. This is where – I believe – the misleading statement on the BBC website comes from; for a good set of primaries it is important that the primaries are independent (that two cannot be mixed to match the other one) but this is a long way from the BBC statement. Once we havs selected three suitable priamries then it’s true that they cannot then be made by any other colours that the primary system can make – but to argue that this is why they are primaries is clearly a circular argument.

There is nothing special about red, yellow and blue. In fact, they are not even the optimal primaries! To say what the optimal primaries are we need to specify the type of mixing: additive or subtractive. Additive mixing describes the behaviour of light-emissive systems such as computer displays, subtractive mixing describes how paints and inks mix. For subtractive mixing the primaries are often quoted as red, yellow and blue, as in the BBC article. However, a larger subtractive gamut is obtained if we use cyan (instead of blue) and magenta (instead of red) – see figure below.


One of my current research interests is to understand why red, blue and yellow became known as the artists’ primaries when a larger gamut is obtained if a bluish red is used (something closer to a magenta) and if a greenish blue is used (something closer to cyan). One only has to look at the primary colours used in inkjet printers for example (where the manufacturers have a vested interest in being able to create a large gamut) to realise that cyan, magenta and yellow are the optimal subtractive primaries.

For additive colour mixing the optimal primaries are red, green and blue. The additive and subtractive primaries have an interesting relationship – but that’s for another blog, another day.

The rays are not coloured

So when Newton wrote that the rays are not coloured, what exactly did he mean?

Well, he meant that even though we may say loosely that light at 400nm is blue and light at 700nm is red this implies that the blueness and the redness are properties of light.  Although there are philosophical arguments that would support colour as a property of light (and we’ll get on to those arguments in a later post) for now I would like to put forward my view (which is, I believe, consistent with Newton’s) that colour is not the property of light.

The evidence that supports my view is that light at 700nm may look red to most people most of the time, it doesn’t look red to all of the people most of the time or even to most of the people all of the time. For a very striking example please consider the image below:


In this example, you will see some blue spirals and some green spirals. But physically the blue and green are the same. In terms of wavelengths, exactly the same wavelengths (in exactly the same proportions) are being reflected from the areas that you perceive as being green and the those you perceive as being blue. If you think in terms of digital (RGB) terms, the RGB values of the green areas and the blue areas are the same – both are about R = 9, G = 20, B = 160. We know now that the colour that you perceive for a wavelength of light or a group of wavelengths depends upon the colours that are close by. This is often expressed as contrast or assimilation. When contrast occurs colours become less like the colours that they are next to an image; when assimilation occurs colours become more like the colours that they are next to. Contrast and assimilation effects result in you seeing two colours, a blue and a green, when physically only one colour exists.

Straight away some of you can see that I am falling into loose language straight away because I am using colour in two different ways. On the one hand I am saying the two colours are physically the same and on the other hand I am saying that the two colours are perceptually different (blue and green). Which is it? It all depends upon how you define colour. My stance is that I define colour as a perceptual phenomonon – it’s something we see and experience. Others may argue that the two colours are really the same and that it is a mere illusion that they look different – I, on the other hand, would argue that the two colours are different. It’s not an illusion – you see a blue and a green, don’t you?

This is what Newton was referring to when he said that “to speak properly, the rays are not coloured” – I believe that Newton was aware of this problem with language – that colour can be used to represent several things. But when we speak properly we realise that the rays are not coloured.