Why study color? For instance, color combinations can add to our sense of beauty and wellness. Knowing how these color happenings occur is illuminating rather than mysterious. Color communicates, too. The Munsell Color System is a good start to study color but also realize that this system has been reworked for the 21st century by the Pantone color system.
Artists use color abundantly to describe the objects that are being drawn, painted, or printed. The Fauves, an art movement led by Matisse, made color the subject and object of all painting.  In a sense, this may be when color really arrives on the scene. The colors used in painting are different from those used in the digital processes of various media and the internet. Color systems are explained according to the medium which is used. For instance, painting uses an oil based medium that is subtractive: meaning the color system
begins with white and ends  darker and eventually with black after all colors are added. With digital media, the system is reversed: color begins with black, gets lighter and ends in white. The primary colors used by a painter are yellow, red, and blue while those of a printer are yellow, magenta, and cyan. Theories of color were made by giants like Isaac Newton and Wilhelm Goethe. Goethe’s nine part harmonic triangle of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors reveals how color works as a system. He wrote a book in 1810 Theory of Colours. However, his acute observations were contradicted by the scientific community of Isaac Newton who originated the wavelength theory of colors. One of the differences in theories involved the color of black which Newton understood to be the absence of light .  While Goethe theorized black was the sum of all colors and an active agent in the color wheel.

Fields of Roussillon, Renee Gandy, oil painting

When color expresses emotion through the English language, color study becomes broader and more creative. Examples include : once in a blue moon, the red carpet treatment, out of the blue, brown bagging, white as a ghost, green thumb, and many more descriptive phrases. Another reason to study color is for its symbolic meaning which evolves from political and cultural contexts. For instance, the symbolism of white is not the same from country to country. In the Western hemisphere, white means purity while white in Japan signifies death. Another example is how red means war but also romance and love. Geographical locations and historical periods reveal differences in what colors may symbolize. Christianity uses color symbolically and so does Buddhism in a different way. Experiencing the full sensual sense of  color brings joy to the viewer and with the creation of synthetic colors, color choices are limitless.

Portrait of Madame Matisse (Green Stripe), Matisse, 1905, oil painting

“Color must not simply ‘clothe’ the form, it must constitute it...when I use paint, I have the feeling of quantity- a surface of color which is necessary to me, and I modify its contour in order to determine my feeling clearly in a definitive way.” Matisse


Reaching back to the 15th century, Leonardo de Vinci was one of the first painters to describe the four primaries: red, yellow, green, and blue. He also included black and white.  Sir Isaac Newton discovers the color spectrum in the year 1666. He joined the ends of the spectrum to form a circle which became the familiar color wheel. A century later, Le Bon discovered the nature of primary pigments: red, yellow, and blue. He learned how to make pigments from minerals and rocks and recorded their properties. That is how artists know that red comes from cinnabar, yellow from opriment, and blue from the deeply blue lapis lazuli.  In 1766 Moses Harris discussed the three tiers of colors in his published The Natural Systems of Color , one of the rarest manuscripts in the history of color. The primaries referred to as primitive, fundamental, basic, or principal while the secondary colors were defined as the mixtures of 2 primaries. Secondary mixtures could be referred to as compound, mediate, or intermediate.

By the 20th century, color classification becomes more sophisticated. Albert Munsell was responsible for the 3-D color tree in use today. The centennial celebration of Munsell's death in June 1918 took place this June in Boston at the Mass College of Art and Design.  The 3-D color tree comprises a vertical scale of values from 1-9 (dark to light). The horizontal branch of this tree is the chroma of color at its neutral gray saturation. As the chroma of a particular hue moves outward from the value scale, the hue approaches its lightest saturation. The Munsell tree comprises 12 gradations and 10 hues. Each of these hues or colors were given numbers. The numbers indicating paint colors originate from the Munsell color tree. To know primary colors in a more general and less historical way, consider red, yellow, and blue  as the raw colors: capable of high intensity and very pure chroma. Beware, though. Film using only primary colors produces a very, ugly movie. Filmmakers discovered that using a variety of less saturated raw color does not tire the eyes as easily or look as artificial. None-the-less, cartoons are notorious for using raw colors at full strength. In storytelling, to use a brightly,saturated primary color emphasizes significance or importance. For example, Saint Mary wears a blue robe. Saturated primaries are indeed mood changers, like a thunderstorm graying the sky’s horizon.

Because our brains seek closure, there is a tendency to see incomplete patterns as a completed whole. This applies to color also. Seeing color opposites by staring at one color, looking away and then staring at a blank,white surface. What appears is the opposite of the first color which is an example of how our brains seek closure and wholeness. This afterimage
phenomenon is explained further by the popular Trichomatic theorydeveloped by Edwald Hering, physiologist (1834-1918).

Christ with Globe, Titian

Two artists, Titian and Michelangelo, used contrasting colors to enhance their paintings. Titian aimed for tonal unity by subduing the foreground and background with blending and avoiding the sharp contrasts of a silhouette.  Michelangelo used color brilliantly. He painted crisp contour edges on colors contrasting the background hues. Michelangelo also used white and black to maximize the range of color in his paintings. Cangiantismo was an art term used to describe the use of high color contrasts. In fact, Venetians in the 16th century, criticized Michelangelo for his use of such “licentious colors".

Doni Tondo, Michelangelo,circa 1503-6, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy, courtesy of Commonswikipedia.org


Sources on Color:

  1. “Our experience is that we seem to simply see color, but it’s really much more like construction of our minds. (the receptor cones in the retina responsible for the perception of three colors) sensitive to overlapping distributions of long, medium, and short wavelengths of light all within a very narrow band of the electromagnetic spectrum” Frank Durgin, p.25  Swarthmore College Bulletin Spring 2018 
  2. www.munsell2018.org
  3. https://massart.edu
  4. https://johnthemathguy.blogspot.com
  5. www:huevaluechroma.com
  6. www:webexhibits.org/colorart/michelangelo.html
  7. www:blenderguru.com
  8. www:colorvision&art.com
  9. www:worgx.com/color
  10. www: study.com/academy/lesson/opponent-process-theory-of-color-vision
"All colors are the friends of their neighbors and the lovers of their opposites"  Marc Chagall

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