The Colors of Graphic Design (Color Model History and Study)


Do you remember your 1st class in pre-school? You were asked to play with colors. And you would paint a picture with your hands, not brush, and the teacher will call it the most beautiful thing (because she was probably sweet like that). In that class, do you remember that exercise when your teacher taught you how to mix a yellow and a blue to make the color green? Yes it was amazing, and you went all “holy crap” with that.

If you have recalled, I’ll tell you this, we don’t mix a yellow and a blue to get green anymore; we now mix a red, a blue and a green, yes the RGB color model. But that is not the color model we were taught in school was it? It was RYB (Red, Yellow and Blue) color model. Well yes, your childhood teacher might have fooled you and for quite a long time but let me clear that up for you, later in this post.

Before I go open the pages of history for you, let me make you familiar with some terms that you should know before you get your hands dirty again. (The fact that you’re reading articles suggests that you might already know it but I prefer to play safe.)

Color Models: A color model in layman terms can be described as a model that we use to generate a plethora of colors by mixing some individual primary colors. Each color model describes different primary colors and follows different methodologies for producing new colors.

Additive Color Model: Additive color model starts with zero colors, i.e. absolute black. To that it then adds primary colors in different ratios and mixtures to produce the desired color. Colors in this model are produced by adding a color to nothing or previously added colors.

Subtractive Color Model: Subtractive color model is just the opposite of additive model. It starts with all the colors i.e. white (as white is the combination of all the colors), and then subtract the colors that are not required.

RGB Model: The Red, Green and Blue color model is the one most widely used. It is an additive one, i.e. the colors required are added to produce the desired color. It is this model that is used to display colors on your television screen, computer monitor, cellphones etc. The primary colors used in this model are Red, Blue and Green.

CYMK Model: CYMK (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, Key) model uses Cyan, Yellow, Magenta as the primary color. This is a subtractive model. Black (referred to as Key) is added to these three colors to enhance the brightness and other attributes of the colors produced.

Now that you are clear with the terms, let us dive straight in.

As kids, we were taught that Red, Yellow and Blue are the primary colors and we combine these colors to produce other colors. But in the light of present day color theory, you might be thinking she played with you as you were so cute.

Well, let me quote Wikipedia here.

“In the 18th century, the RYB primary colors became the foundation of theories of color vision, as the fundamental sensory qualities that are blended in the perception of all physical colors and equally in the physical mixture of pigments or dyes. These theories were enhanced by 18th-century investigations of a variety of purely psychological color effects, in particular the contrast between “complementary” or opposing hues that are produced by color afterimages and in the contrasting shadows in colored light. These ideas and many personal color observations were summarized in two founding documents in color theory: the Theory of Colors (1810) by the German poet and government minister Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and The Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast (1839) by the French industrial chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul.

Subsequently, German and English scientists established in the late 19th century that color perception is best described in terms of a different set of primary colors – red, green and blue (RGB) modeled through the additive, rather than subtractive, mixture of three monochromatic lights.”

So your teacher didn’t really teach you something wrong. You can read more of this article on Wikipedia here. It’s a nice one!

It was Issac Newton who recognized that colors could be created by mixing these color primaries and as we just learned, for long we believed that human eye works on subtractive model. Using RGB model, the largest portion of the human color space can be captured. So that explains RYB and RGB.

The CMYK model is used to produce process colors (I’ll get to that), it can be said to describe the printing process. It was discovered that in print media, we can produce the largest possible color gamut by mixing the colors Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. Black (Key) is used to enhance the color produced in terms of brightness or darkness as mixing Cyan, Magenta and Yellow does not really produce black when mixed together. It rather produces dark brown. The printing devices (and most devices that produce colors in print form) use the CMYK model. A set of transparent inks is used for all these primaries which produce the desired result when mixed in correct proportions.

Also, there is a big difference in how these individual color models are implemented. Colors are implemented as spot colors and process colors. Spot colors are mixed before printing to exactly the color specified whereas process colors are mixed on the press from cyan, magenta, yellow and black (i.e. CMYK). Howsoever interesting the terms may sound, they are really messy. A large range of colors can be produced as spot colors but the same for process colors does not hold true. We cannot produce many colors accurately in this way.

So let’s say you are designing a company logo and there is one really bright color you produced that gives it the wow effect. And you try to reproduce in CMYK and see the magic fade away in front of you. You are not alone my friend. To solve this issue, there is something called “PANTONE Color Palettes”. I don’t intend to go in the details of it but I will certainly tell you what they are.

PANTONE Color Palettes are standard (and a huge range) of colors that you can use to find that magic color of yours. You may sometimes do not find the exact match but it’ll be close. You can use PANTONE color libraries to find the color you need, and all nearby variants, for many different type of paper and requirements.

So mixing Yellow and Blue is one way of painting your world but with time we humans have learned more and the world is more colorful today than ever.

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