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Design: the parts and the whole — chapter 9 – basic color



Of all the visual elements color is the most complex, and in my opinion, the most exciting. Color encompasses physiology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and of course, the arts. Committed artists are life- long students of color. There are always color surprises — rules that sometimes don’t work, a new color combination, an unexpected color interaction.  This complexity should not seem inhibiting; color is a delight and should be approached as such. In the hands of an experienced designer or artist color can be her/his most expressive and enjoyable tool.


Light, a form of electromagnetic energy, is an interpretation by our brain of energy waves that have reached the cones and rods in the retina of the eye. Most electromagnetic energy is not visible to the human eye. Tiny gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet rays, infrared rays, microwaves, radio waves, TV waves, and ultra long radio waves are all forms of electromagnetic energy we cannot see. This energy is measured by its wavelength, from crest to crest. Radio waves can be as long as a mile; gamma rays, on the other hand, are so small ultra-tiny X-units measure them. On this same spectrum of energy, between the infrared and ultraviolet rays, is the visible spectrum of white light — daylight. This white light is composed of a variety of colors; each with its own wavelength; when these wavelengths are mixed together, white light is the result. The famous English physicist Isaac Newton first scientifically analyzed this in the 17th century. Newton refracted a ray of white light through a prism that broke it down into its colored wavelengths: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. To confirm his finding Newton also passed the band of colored light through a second prism and combined it back to white light. Of the colored light, red is the longest wavelength, blending into infrared light; violet is the shortest wavelength that blends into ultraviolet light. Nature has been breaking white light down into its colored components long before man was upright. The most spectacular example is when white light is refracted by moisture droplets in the air, creating rainbows.

Color is a response by our brains to certain reflected or transmitted light waves. Objects have surface qualities that reflect certain rays of light and absorb others. If we see an object as red, it is because the rays of light producing red are being reflected to our eyes and the rest of the rays in white light are being absorbed. If we see a surface as white, all rays are being reflected to our eyes. If we see a surface as black, nearly all rays are being absorbed.

Because our perception of color is dependent on our individualistic eyes and brain, our sense of color is a personal experience. This is dramatically demonstrated in individuals who are colorblind. This “blindness” can range from problems in distinguishing some colors apart to nearly achromatic (no color) vision. This uniqueness in our color perception brings us back to the perception concepts of chapter two It is humbling to realize how individual is our sense of reality. We all see the world in our distinctive ways. This is true of our visual perceptions and our mental perceptions.

Some other mammals are less color perceptive than are humans; cats and dogs are said to be colorblind. Conversely, insects have very complex reactions to color. The discovery of insect color preferences has been useful to humans: mosquitoes don’t like orange but do like red, black, and blue; beekeepers have found wearing white helps to avoid being stung but dark colors attract the bees; the knowledge that flies don’t like blue has been utilized by the meat packing industry to cut down on maggot infestations (Bevlin 121). Human beings also have a variety of color preferences that will be discussed later in the text.


If all colored light is added together the result is white light; thus the term additive color. The primary colors in the additive system are red, green, and blue. If these three colored lights are projected, where all three overlap the result will be white; where the red and blue overlap will be magenta (red-violet); where the blue and green overlap – cyan (blue-green); where the red and green overlap – yellow (surprise!). Yes, in light, red and green light mix to form yellow.

These additive primaries – red, green, and blue – are an important part of modern technology. Colored light is the basis of color imagery in computer, video, laser, and holography.  All the hours you spent staring at a television screen you have been seeing tiny dots of red, green and blue light which optically mix to form full-color images.  Computer graphics use this technology and have a broad range of software and hardware combinations that can produce millions of color variations. Lasers use concentrated colored light and holography also uses lasers to create startling, ghostly images. These are technologies in their infancy and will be maturing as artistic media in decades to come. An important aspect of these evolving new art forms is that even though they are involved in new and somewhat exotic technology they still involve the manipulation of the visual elements of basic design.  Color, line, space, shape, value, texture – and at times movement and sound – are the substance of these media.  Their final success or failure will be measured by how these elements are put together and to what effect.  It is design and not technology that is the true end product.


The colors created by the overlap of the additive primary colors – magenta, cyan, and yellow – are called the secondary additive primary colors or the subtractive primary colors. These three colors form the primary mixing colors, not in light, but in paints and dyes. The three colors relate to the traditional primary colors taught in elementary school — red (magenta), blue (cyan), and yellow. The subtractive primary colors have a red that is more violet (magenta) and a blue that leans toward green (cyan). These are the colors of commercial color printing.

With the subtractive primaries a full spectrum of colors can be mixed. This mixing of paint is very different from the mixing of colored light. In light, when the primaries are mixed together the result is white. In mixing with paint, the light that illuminates the surface is absorbed in varying amounts depending on the color. The color of paint is seen by a process of subtracting light. Thus the mixing of paint is called subtractive color mixing. A clear example of this process is exhibited when all three subtractive primaries, magenta, cyan, and yellow, are mixed together the result is black.  No light reflected to the eyes; all has been subtracted.


Pigments are materials that are used as a coloring matter in paint, dyes, and other artist’s materials. Pigments are usually in powdered form and must be suspended or mixed in some vehicle, liquid or solid, to make it functional.  These mixing vehicles are called binders.  Examples of binders are linseed oil for oil paint, gum and glycerin for watercolor, acrylics and polymers (plastics) for acrylic paint, wax for colored pencils, and linseed oil again for oil pastels and conte crayons.

The pigments themselves have both organic and synthetic sources. Organic pigments can be derived from earth, minerals, and organic compounds. Pigments derived from earth are made from clays; ochre, sienna, and umber are all produced from clay rich in iron oxide. Mineral pigments are produced from pulverizing natural ores. Genuine ultramarine blue was produced from crushed lapis lazuli stone making it as expensive as gold during the Renaissance.  Organic compound pigments are extracted from animal and plant sources. The source of natural sepia is the ink sac of the cuttlefish. Natural carmine is produced from dried cochineal insects. Certain berries, flower heads, barks and leaves are also sources of organic pigments (Osbourne 58-60). The range of colors found in tribal cultures art is tied to the organic and mineral resources of their areas.

Beginning in the 19th century the chemical composition of some mineral and organic pigments was analyzed and synthetic pigments were created, thus making pigments more available and lower in cost. Because some pigments are poisonous, the designer should use caution in their application and handling. Some of these toxic pigments are chrome orange, chrome yellow, chrome lemon, chromium oxide green, flake white, hansa orange G, yellow 5G, and lemon 10G; cadmium red, cadmium scarlet, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, cadmium lemon, alizarium crimson, phthalocyanine blue, phthalocyanine green, quinacra red, quinacra violet, quinacra magenta, vermilion, viridian, and zinc yellow (Osborne 150-152). A primary precaution is to not ingest any pigment. This ingesting can be done by sticking a brush handle in the teeth while using the painting hand for something else or by the bad habit of “tipping” the end of the brush by sticking the end of the brush into the mouth to form a sharp point on the hairs. It would also be wise to eliminate or minimize skin contact with these pigments. It is also necessary to make use of respirators and good ventilation when using airbrush or any other spraying techniques.

It seems usual for students to not be overly concerned with health risks of art materials. This may be tied to the illusion of immortality that is part of youth. The truth is that exposure to toxins are cumulative and the more exposure one has over time the more likely it is that one’s life will be shorter. It is very advisable to begin careful use of toxic substances early in life and develop good habits that may add years of the most wise and possibly the enjoyable time of your life – the elder years.


Color has been on the minds of many great thinkers through the ages. Aristotle sought to understand color and wrote that color is on the surface of all things. Leonardo DaVinci’s endless curiosity brought about some interesting color observations including some acute commentary on complementary colors and contrast. We have already mentioned Sir Isaac Newton’s major observations on light and color.

In the 19th century a flurry of important research and writing was done about color. The German poet Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe wrote of the importance of color and the eye, color in shadows, color contrast, and other concepts that strongly influenced artists of the century. German painter Philip Otto Runge attempted the first three-dimensional model of color. French chemist Michel Eugene Chevruel developed an elaborate color circle and wrote extensively on the visual effects colors have on each other. American scientist and artist Ogden Rood did extensive research on the optics of color and concentrated on color as a physical sensation.

During the early 20th century two color theorists developed ideas that were and still are major influences. American artist and teacher Albert Munsell used the growing knowledge of color and produced a structured, regular three-dimensional model of color based on hue, value and chroma. He based his steps on scales more scientifically measured by a photometer. Munsell’s color wheel used five primary colors: red, yellow, blue, green, and violet. His work attempted to bring more precision to color description and specification. This striving for a more scientific approach to color study was also pursued by German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1909. Ostwald wanted to scientifically quantify color and developed a system in which color progression was measured in geometric progression (Zelanski & Fisher 46-55). All these individuals and many more have contributed to today’s understanding of color.

For use in basic color study, I find the traditional twelve-part color wheel the most useful and practical. This wheel has red, yellow, and blue as the primary colors; green, orange, and violet are the secondary colors; and red-orange, yellow-orange, red-violet, blue- violet, blue-green, and yellow-green are the tertiary or intermediary colors.

Color has three basic properties: hue, value, and intensity. These three qualities can help the designer use color more effectively and begin to understand its limitless potential.

Hue is unmodified pure color. The primary, secondary, and tertiary colors just mentioned are hues. If white, black, gray, or other colors are added to a color, it is no longer a hue. Hue is the pure state of color upon which all other color properties are based.

Value refers to the lightness or darkness of color. All color has a natural value apart from its color. This is demonstrated when a black and white photograph is taken of a color subject. The colors are translated through the process to their natural value. By simply looking at a color and thinking what value it has one can usually get a fairly good idea of its natural value.  Occasionally this process can be deceptive. For example yellow has a natural value that is nearly white and red and green have natural values that are many times nearly identical. The value of a color is a very important consideration in the design process. A designer isn’t going to use a red figure on a green ground if a strong value contrast is desired, and certainly not if the design might be reduced to black and white. The value of a color can be altered by mixing black, white, grays, or other hues. If white is added to the color a tint is the result; if black is added to a color a shade is produced; and if black and white (gray) is added to a color a tone is created. There is an endless range of values that can be produced from one color with tints, tones, and shades.

Intensity relates to value and hue and is the most complex of the three-color properties. Part of this complexity lies in the diverse terminology of design. Intensity is sometimes also called saturation or chroma. All three of these terms refer to the relative purity of a color. A hue is a full intensity color. This full intensity can be altered in a number of ways. The first is by the already mentioned addition of white, black, or grays, changing the color’s value and intensity. Changing the hue’s value lowers the color intensity. A second way to alter the intensity of a hue is to mix with the hue the color that is directly opposite it on the color wheel, called the complementary color. Main complementary color sets are red and green, orange and blue, and violet and yellow. A mixing of these two opposite hues causes a color subtraction of reflected light because between the two colors they contain all the primary colors. An example would be mixing the direct complements of red with green. Green contains blue and yellow so if you mix that with red you are mixing the three primaries together and subtracting the reflected light. A mixture of a little green to red will slightly lower the intensity of the red, the more green added the more the red will be changed and usually browned. Intensity changes by complementary color mixing are ways of altering color intensity without adding black, white or grays. Complementary mixing is also a way to produce a large variety of browns with many different color qualities, as nearly all heavy complementary mixtures will create a variation on brown. These browns can range from very drab to very rich. Complementary color mixtures are sometimes also called tones, as are color and gray mixtures.

A designer or artist’s knowledge of color mixing and color properties opens up a world of color possibilities.  Artists aren’t confined by premixed commercial colors; instead they have a truly infinite range of color available that can be mixed from three hues and black and white.


materials: acrylic paint set, brushes, water container, palette, palette knife, pencil, ruler, black marker, illustration board 20″ X  20.”

objective: To creatively produce an extended color wheel               including subtractive primary color mixing,  complementary color mixing, and color value  mixing including tints, tones and shades.


1. A diagram of the basic project color wheel will be given in class. Design a creative solution to arranging the needed color areas – be innovative.

2. Using only the colors on your supply sheet, mix a traditional twelve-part color wheel.

3. In a shape in the middle of the color wheel, mix together the three primaries to produce a value as  close to black as possible.

4. Mix a six-step scale between each of the six pairs of complementary colors on the color wheel.

5. Off the top of each of the twelve colors on the color wheel execute three scales each with four steps. One scale is to be three progressive tints leading to  white; the second is to be three successive tones leading to a medium gray (the tube gray is a great asset for consistency); the final scale is to three  progressive shades leading to black (tube black, not mixed black).

6. This project involves a total of 193 color mixtures — plan your time accordingly. The negative space of the project may be painted white or gray to clean the project up.

7. On the back or front of the board label the project Color Mixing and Properties and your name.

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