There are two systems which determine how we see color - subtractive and additive color. As an artist, it is essential that you understand these two color systems so that you can make informed decisions about the colors you use.
Subtractive color is how we see color in paints. It is the result of light either bouncing off or being absorbed by an object due to what is known as pigmentation. The light which bounces off the object is translated by our eyes and brain into the perception of color.
This means that objects do not have an inherent color. The color of an object is the result of light and pigmentation.
For example, an apple is not red because it is inherently red. It is red because it is reflecting red light wavelengths and absorbing the rest.
In art, the subtractive primary colors are red, blue and yellow. Primary colors are colors which, in theory, are able to mix all other colors in the visible spectrum. Below is a color wheel which uses red, blue and yellow primary colors.
Primary Colors: Red, blue and yellow
Secondary Colors: Orange, green and violet
Additive color refers to how we see color in light itself. Our modern understanding of light and color begins with the experiments conducted by Sir Isaac Newton, who used a prism to split white light into the visible spectrum of colors. The key discovery here was the light is not merely revealing color which is already there; it is the color.
The primary colors of light are different from the primary subtractive colors of our paints. Below is an additive color wheel which illustrates what happens when you mix colored lights together.
Primary Colors of Light: Red, green and blue
Secondary Colors of Light: Cyan, magenta and yellow
If you mix green with red light, you get yellow light. If you mix blue with green light, you get cyan light. If you mix blue with red light, you get magenta light.
When you mix (add) all the colors of light together, you get white light. This is why it is referred to as additive color. With subtractive color, you see color because some wavelengths are being reflected and others are being absorbed (subtracted). When you mix all the subtractive colors together, you do not get white light; you get mud.
In painting, you will be painting both subtractive colors (reflected light) and additive colors (actual light sources).
For example, picture a traditional landscape. The colors of the trees, grass, rocks, land - these are subtractive colors (light is bouncing off these objects). The sky and sun - these are additive colors (light sources).
The dilemma is that you are not able to use your paints (subtractive colors) to duplicate the effect of additive colors (a light source). This is a limitation of our paints. This is why your sunset painting just does not seem to have the same impact as the real thing.
Instead of painting with light, we are only able to paint the illusion of light. So instead of trying to paint the actual intensity and brightness of the sunset in your painting (which would be impossible), you should try and paint the relative brightness and temperature of the sunset to the rest of your scene. This may involve toning down the rest of the painting to show-off the sunset.
A Note About Cyan, Magenta And Yellow
In painting, most artists consider red, blue and yellow as the primary colors. But some artists are adopting cyan, magenta and yellow as the primary colors, as they are thought to produce a more complete range of colors. These colors plus black are actually used in colored printing. Below is a color wheel using cyan, magenta and yellow as the primary colors.
Primary Colors: Cyan, magenta and yellow
Secondary Colors: Red, blue and green
For simplicity and to remain consistent with other artists, I use red, blue and yellow as the primary colors.
What Do Subtractive And Additive Colors Have In Common?
An interesting thing about subtractive and additive colors is that they both require light. With subtractive colors, light wavelengths are either reflecting off objects or being absorbed via pigmentation. Additive color is created by light itself.
So without light, color would not exist. It is light that allows us to experience the sensation of color. In a sense, light does not reveal color, it produces color.
(If you want to learn more about color mixing and painting in general, I invite you to join my free email course, 7 Days to Better Paintings).
Thanks for Reading!
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