2D Design (Art 107)

Color Wheels • Color Systems

A Color Wheel is a conventional arrangement of hues in a circle to demonstrate their relationships. Only full hues as they appear in the spectrum are usually shown in a color wheel. If value is also included then the color wheel is usually presented as a color sphere or solid. The circular arrangement of a color wheel suggests that the progression of colors is circular, that the arrangement of colors turns back on itself the way a circle does. If that were the case the next hue in the sequence … green, blue, violet will be red. The wavelengths that produce color, however, progress linearly and the band of electromagnetic energy that appears after violet is ultraviolet which is invisible to the human eye.

The most common color wheel is based on the theories advanced by Louis Prang in 1876 and is commonly known as the Artist's or Prang color wheel. It is the representation of color relationships that we have all encountered in grammar school.

Despite the flaw of presenting color as a seemingly circular progression, color wheels can be useful graphic devices for presenting the essential structure of a color theory or system. In most theories the hues on the color wheel can be grouped as follows.

Primary Hues: These are red, blue and yellow in the Prang color system They are referred to as primary because (theoretically at least) they cannot be made by mixing other hues and because other hues can (again in theory) be made by mixing two of the primaries together.
Secondary Hues: These are orange, green and violet in the Prang system. These can each be produced by mixing together two primary hues.
Tertiary Hues: These are hues intermediary between primary and secondary hues. These are usually named and mixed by combining adjacent primary and secondary hues; e.g. red-orange is the tertiary between red and orange.

Our understanding of the organization and structure of color is referred to as a color theory or color system. There are many different theories or systems, all of which are conventions for communicating color information and perception rather than a factual basis for understanding color scientifically. Some of the more prominent color theories and systems are;

Prang or Artist’s Color System: As noted previously, the primaries in this system are red, blue and yellow. Prang was a printer and developed a four-color printing process known as chromolithography in the 1860's. Prang's system was the first workable system to reproduce color in print. He is sometimes referred to as the father of the American Christmas Card. The Prang Color Wheel arrangement was also used by Johannes Itten in his work on color.

The Prang/Artist's/Itten Color Wheel

Process Color, Printer’s Primaries, CYMK or Four-color System: This is the system used by much of the print industry. In this system, the primaries are Cyan (a blue with a slight greenish tinge), Yellow and Magenta (a violet red). The fourth “color” is black, designated by K.

Cyan (C)
Yellow (Y)
Magenta (M)
Black (K)

Magazines and other mass-produced printed materials such as posters and packaging are printed using the Four-color process. The range of colors we “see” in these printed materials is generated by overlapping patterns of dots of each of the four colors, printed in varying sizes which optically blend in our eye to give the perception of many colors. The finer the dot pattern the more “photographic” the printed image appears. Coarse printing, such as in news papers, where the dots can be seen with the naked eye, are approximately 72 dots per inch. High quality printing may have up to 1200 dots per inch. In order to avoid the dot patterns from setting up interference waves (moiré patterns), each color screen is printed at a different angle. Standard screen angles for CMYK (Process printing) are; Cyan 105º, Magenta 75º, Yellow 90º and Black 45º.

An example of four-color printing with magnified detail to show dot patterns.

Munsell Color System: This system is based on a unique color-solid arrangement which more accurately demonstrates hue, value and intensity of color. In this system, a colors hue is given a number/letter desitnation which locates it on the Munsell Color Wheel. Value is designated by a number from 1 -11 corresponding to a scale from black to white. Intensity or chroma is designated by a number from 1 - 15 (the higher the number the greater the hue's intensity). This System is often used by paint, ink and colored paper and other manufacturers because its alpha-numerical system of notation allows for accurate description of a color’s hue, value and intensity between various remote parties. For example, in the Munsell System, a fairly bright yellow would be notated as 3Y 8.0/14.3 rather than a fairly bright yellow. The Munsell System is used by the U.S. Bureau of Standards. In the Munsell System, the primaries are red, purple, blue, green and yellow.



The Munsell Color Wheel

The Munsell Color Solid

Ostwald System: This system was devised by William Ostwald and is a more subjective or personal color system. In this system the primaries are yellow, red, ultramarine blue, and sea green. The Secondary hues are leaf green, orange, purple and turquoise. There is little practical application of the Ostwald system.

Schopenhauer/Goethe Weighted Color System: Johann Goethe, the German poet and dramatist devised a color system of six equal parts (our common primaries and secondaries). Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, much to Goethe’s dismay, modified Goethe’s system by changing the equal distribution of the hues around the color wheel in favor of a distribution of unequal amounts. In Schopenhauer’s version the hues were given weights based on their lightness or darkness; i.e. their perceived weight. Each complementary pair shares 1/3 of the color wheel, just as in the Prang and original Goethe systems. But in Schopenhauer’s modification the complementary pairs are assigned different proportions of their third based on this weighting. Yellow occupies 1/4 and violet 3/4 of their respective third. Orange is assigned 1/3 and blue 2/3 of their third of the color wheel, and red and green each are assigned 1/2 of their portion. The hues, in their order on the color wheel, are yellow, orange, red, violet, blue and green and each are assigned a numerical value or 3, 4, 6, 9, 8,and 6 respectively.

Subtractive Color: All the systems described above are referred to a subtractive color systems, i.e. they are based on the absorption of a portion of the light spectrum by a pigment or material and the corresponding reflection of the remainder of the spectrum which we see as the materials or pigment’s “color”. In a subtractive system white is the balanced reflection of all the hues present in the light spectrum and black is the balanced absorption of that spectrum.

Subtractive color shown with Cyan, Magenta and Yellow

Additive Color/ RGB: When light does not contain the full spectrum of hues we see the light as being colored. A light with only the red portion of the spectrum shining on a “white” object makes the object appear “red” because only the red portion of the spectrum is available to be reflected off the “white” object. When using light, as in the theatre or movies or on TV and computer monitors light of different “colors” are be mixed to achieve the perception of a full range of possible colors. In light, the primaries are red, green and blue (the RGB of computer monitors). Mixing the primaries produces white light as Newton demonstrated almost 350 years ago. Turning off the light produces black.

Additive color shown with Red, Green and Blue

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