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Color Theory

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Color Theory

Old conceptions

One of the first issues to which the modern painter is confrontated is how to reproduce the colors of the reality correctly. Therefore, he needs a basic grounding in the color theory.

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Unfortunately, many books teaching this theory are based on old conceptions dating from the end of the 19th century, and this former theory is partly correct and partly inaccurate. Their theory was inaccurate because the chemistry of that time was unable to offer the painters (and the printing companies) pigments like the contemporary ones.

The old theory said “there are 3 primitive colors: red, yellow and blue”. With these 3 colors, its supporters pretended they could reproduce every color of the nature. But this theory is only partly correct. If you take your oil colors and mix blue and yellow, you get green; red and yellow, you get orange. But with blue and red, you can only produce a very dirty violet.

red + blue = dirty violet

The result will be the same with oil, water or acrylic colors,
or even with color pencils.

Mixing the 3 pigments in various proportions can give several brown shades. But in any case, it remains impossible to get black by mixing red, yellow and blue. Bright colors like those of the rainbow (or of the spectrum) are unobtainable too.

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Colored lights or material pigments?

In fact the problem wasn’t posed correctly, because the theoricians didn’t imagine there were two different issues:

  • mixing colored lights or
  • mixing material pigments.

These two types of mixings give considerably different results.

  1. When you mix two colored lights, you ADD the energy of the first one to the energy of the second. The result is a more powerful colored light, thus a LIGHTER color. An example. In a dark room, if you project a red light and a green light at the same time on a white screen, the result is yellow, a lighter color. If you add a third light, a blue one, the result is yet lighter: it’s white, the lightest of all colors.

    2 & 3 colored lights on screen

  2. When you mix two colored pigments on a white ground, the result is quite different. You SUBTRACT the luminous energy of the second from the energy of the first one. The result is less powerful, what means darker. A red pigment mixed with a green one gives a brown color. Brown is darker than red or than green. You add a third pigment, a blue one, and you get something yet darker.

    red & green on a white ground

There are thus 2 different systems:

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