Whether you are working on a design project, redecorating your home or trying to buy impressive clothes, there is a common challenge: Which colors are the right ones? Which set of colors should you go for? This is because we all know this simple reality: Color matters. Colors can be used to attract and distract attention. They can energize but also calm down.
With the right color scheme, you can impress, inspire and make a statement. In order to select the right scheme and use color as a powerful design element, a little knowledge about color theory won’t do any harm. And this is where the concepts of color models, primary colors, secondary and tertiary colors come into the picture.
We are all taught from an early age that red, yellow and blue are the three primary colors from which all the other colors are derived. Most of us think that by mixing these three colors in different combinations and quantities, we will achieve all the other colors.
However, in the modern context this definition has become a little too simplistic, inadequate and perhaps wrong. This is because with new computer, screen and print technologies, the primary colors now vary under different color models.
Therefore, a more appropriate definition for primary colors would be as follows: Primary colors depend on the color system/model they are operated under. Broadly speaking, they are the set of colors from which all other colors could be created - but all this happens in a given color model. This means that red, yellow and blue are not necessarily primary colors.
A color model is basically an abstract system under which at least three colors are used as primaries to create additional colors. In the modern times, there are different color models created for different purposes.
As color results on the way that our eyes perceive light waves, its perception depends on the media that reflects it. Therefore, different color models for print, screens, computers, fabrics and other purposes are needed so that the desired look can be achieved.
While the range of colors produced within a specific model is called the color space, different ranges of colors can be produced under different models. Additionally, color models are defined under two categories: Additive and subtractive.
This is the most traditional and classical color model. It goes back to the 17th century and forms the basis of classical color theory. It is still the theory taught in art schools.
As the abbreviation suggests, this system uses red, yellow and blue as its primary colors. The RYB model is used particularly in painting; the red, yellow and blue pigments form a standard artist’s color wheel. The RYB model can also be used in design. In this model, the secondary colors are purple, orange and green.
Also called the light model, the RGB color system is used for creating colors by light. The initials stand for red, green and blue; which are the primary colors of light. It is an additive color model in the sense that when the primary colors are added together, they lead to the creation of other colors.
This model is applied in light sources. The colors we see on the screens of smartphones, tablets, computers or TVs are created through red, green and blue light waves, added together in different amounts and combinations. The brain perceives these different proportions of light as different colors. For instance, think of a computer screen and its pixels. Your computer actually uses only red, green and blue lights -in various intensities- at each of these pixels. The pixels in turn fool your eye and brain so that you see different colors or a mix of colors instead of only three. Hence, the higher the number of pixels, the higher the quality.
In an RGB color space, when all colors are added to one another, white is produced. In the absence of light however, the color black will be seen. The RGB color space is the basis of computer graphics, website design and other digital media.
referred to as the print model, this is the color system used for
printing. The letters CMYK stand for the following primary colors in
this system: Cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). In this model,
these colors are mixed/printed on a white surface to produce all the
The CMYK model is subtractive and works on the following principle: Color pigments in ink prevent/subtract certain wavelengths of light from the reflection. Thus, when you mix another color pigment in ink to create a new color, some light will be subtracted or masked; thus less light will be reflected. When you notice that cyan is the opposite of red, magenta is the opposite of green and yellow is the opposite of blue, it is easier to grasp: These colors absorb or subtract their opposites from the white light. For example, cyan will subtract red light and will in turn reflect blue and green light. Yellow would absorbs blue but reflect red and green. Therefore when cyan is mixed with yellow paint, only green will be seen because only green light will be reflected while the red and blue would be absorbed.
Another important point to make about the CMYK model is about the color black. One may assume that when cyan, magenta and yellow are added together, black would be created. However, what you achieve would only be a muddy brown. To create real black, one has to add pure black. This CMYK model is recognized as the standard model for printers today.