Tag Archives: subtractive 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.

subtractive mixing – why not RGB?

In a previous post I spoke about the difference between additive and subtractive mixing and why the additive primaries are red, green and blue or RGB for short – http://colourware.wordpress.com/2009/07/13/additive-colour-mixing/

The chromaticity diagram – see http://colourware.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/colourchat-audiovisual-guide-to-the-chromaticity-diagram/ – has a very useful property. If you plot the chromaticities of two lights, then the straight line that joins the two points on the chromaticity diagram show you the additive mixtures that can be obtained by mixing together the two lights. If we take three lights, then the additive mixtures that can be obtained are defined by the triangle that is formed if the chromaticities are the vertices of the triangle. Ok – that’s a bit of a mouthful so let’s have a practical example. The triangle in the diagram below shows the gamut that can be achieved when we have three additive primaries that are positioned at the corners of the triangle.

rgb_gamut

 From this diagram it should become obvious why the additive primaries are RGB. Say, we chose, two reds and a cyan as the three additive primaries – well, the triangle would be tiny. In other words, the gamut would not be very big. The biggest triangle in the chromaticity is one whose vertices are formed by a red, a green and a blue. WhichRGB will give the biggest triangle? I don’t know – it’s been something that has been puzzling me for the last few days and I’ll come back to this in a later post. But certainly any RGB triangle is pretty large as long as the red, green and blue primaries chosen are reasonably saturated.

So what happens if we choose RGB as the subtractive primaries? Subtractive colour mixing describes how inks and paints mix together to form colours. The first thing to point out is that subtractive colour mixing is not additive and linear – you remember I said that when you mix two lights together the colour mixtures all fall on the straight line that joins the  two points in the chromaticity diagram that represent the two lights? Well, this is only true for additive colour mixing. So to work out the gamut for subtractive systems is not an easy thing to do. However, if you do select the three subtractive primaries as RGB you’ll get a gamut that looks something like this:

rgb_subgamut

Notice that the gamut is concave. Mixing red and green lights produces a nice yellow. You can test this by going into your colour-picker in software such as Photoshop or Powerpoint and setting the RGB values to be 255:255:0. You’ll get a nice yellow. But mixing red and green paints – it will give you a similar hue to yellow but you’ll get something quite desaurated; most likely you’ll get a brown. So using RGB as the subtractive primaries would not be a very good thing at all.

It turns out that additive and subtractive colour mixing are very related. The best subtractive primaries are the ones that control the amount of red, green and blue light reflected. A yellow dye applied to textiles, for example, mainly absorbs short wavelengths in the blue section of the spectrum, allowing the other wavelengths to be reflected by the textile. The “other wavelengths” that are reflected give yellow. But the important point is that the yellow dye absorbs blue. Similarly, a magenta dye absorbs green and a cyan dye absorbs red. This leads to the idea of the optimal subtractive primaries being those that are cyan, magenta and yellow or CMY. This leads to a gamut somewhat like this:

cmy_gamut

The biggest gamut for subtractive mixing is obtained by using CMY as the primaries. But weren’t you taught at school that the subtractive primaries are red, blue and yellow? Almost certainly you were – and this is because it is accepted dogma at most art colleges and in many art and design textbooks. But it is quite easy to show that the optimal primaries – those giving the largest gamut – are CMY not RBY. If you were building a colour-reproduction system using only three colours such as a printer you would come to the conclusion – as companies such as HP, Xerox, and Epson have done – that you get the largest colour range with CMY. So why has it become commonplace for artists to refer to red, yellow and blue as the primaries? Could it be a colour naming and language issue – that they really mean cyan when they say blue and it’s just a naming error. Possible, but not likely in my opinion.  I think it is more likely that most artists are not overly concerned that RYB gives a smaller gamut than CMY because they rarely restrict themselves to three primaries. An artist would typically use 6 or more primaries. For example, they might use two blues (one that is reddish and one that is greenish), two reds (one that is yellowish and one that is bluish) and two yellows (one that is greenish and one that is reddish) in order to easily be able to mix a wide range of colours. The (mis-)identification of RYB as the subtractive primaries has much to do with colour wheels. I like to keep each of these blog posts reasonably concise – if I start writing about the problems of colour wheels now I will be writing for another 2 hours. And it’s nearly midnight now so colour wheels will need to wait for another day!