handprint : summary of modern color theory
summary of modern color theory

This page lists the 158 principles of modern color theory, which link to the web page section that discusses the topic.

modern color theory (concepts)

talking about color

1. There are three fundamental categories of color: material color, visual color, and conceptual color.

2. Vision scientists have identified three colormaking attributes — brightness/lightness, hue and hue purity — that are sufficient to precisely specify any visual color.

3. Brightness is the sensation of light emitted or reflected from an object that is greater than the light reflected from a matte "white" surface under the same illumination.

4. Lightness is the sensation of light emitted or reflected from a surface as a proportion of the light emitted or reflected from the brightest surface (or a matte "white" surface) under the same illumination.

5. Hue is the attribute of color matched by a single wavelength of light or by a mixture of "violet" and "red" wavelengths of light.

6. Hue purity is the concentration or intensity of hue independent of its luminance or lightness, commonly termed the colorfulness, chroma or saturation of a color.

7. Artists use warm to refer to red, orange and yellow hues, and cool to refer to blue green and blue hues.

8. Physical or surface qualities of color materials are described with the terms gloss, translucency or transparency, fluorescence, and iridescence or pearlescence.

9. All colors can be uniquely identified and related to each other as locations within a color space, specified by the dimensions of brightness/lightness, hue and hue purity.

10. Modern color spaces are of two types: a colorant space is based on mixtures of real or imaginary "primary" colors, and a perceptual color space is based on the visual colormaking attributes.

misconceptions in traditional color theory

11. Color displays the relationship between light and light reflecting surfaces in space.

12. The five components of visual color context are: (1) the total illuminance level, (2) the illuminant (chromaticity of the illuminance), (3) the illuminance contrast between color areas, (4) the colormaking contrasts between color areas, and (5) spatial factors (size of color area, pattern, location in space).

13. Color vision in general attempts to minimize the effects of illuminance variation, eliminate the effects of illuminant, enhance the effects of colormaking contrast, and subordinate all light and color perception to spatial factors.

14. Surfaces in space define areas of reduced color contrast separated by edges and colors of enhanced color contrast.

15. All "primary" colors are either imaginary concept colors or imperfect material colors. No visual color is "primary".

16. The ideal subtractive primary hues are red violet [magenta], yellow and green blue [cyan].

17. The choice of primary colors is arbitrary; colorant selections depend on cost, availability, convenience, medium and image quality.

18. The subtractive primary hues are the same in all printing, painting and photographic media. The optimal subtractive primary pigments are identical in painting and in printing.

modern color theory (concepts)

modern color theory (applications)

19. Every hue can be mixed by two other hues, provided the two hues are not directly opposite each other on the hue circle, and the hue to be mixed is located within the shorter distance between them.

20. All three colormaking attributes — lightness, chroma and hue — are equally important to evaluate visual colors and create color designs.

21. The relative importance and optimal values of color lightness, chroma and hue in a color design depend entirely on visual style, the materials used, the purpose of color choices and the context in which color will be viewed.

22. The color of a paint is not in the reflected light, but in the visual interpretation of the reflected light.

23. All visual colors of materials comprise a proportion of chromatic reflectance (C), a proportion of whiteness (W) caused by surface scattering, and a proportion of blackness (K) caused by the loss of light as heat:

visual color = W + C + K

24. The proportion of white light scattering is decreased by surface gloss; the proportion of black absorptance is increased by a transparent vehicle.

25. The visual color attributes W, C and K are perceived through luminance and chromaticity contrasts within a light environment, and therefore can be mimicked by contrasts between light stimuli presented as contiguous color areas.

26. Given an arbitrary limit on the number of paints or inks in a palette, the largest variety of saturated color mixtures is obtained by choosing the most saturated pigments in hues equally spaced around the hue circle.

27. "Mud" is a perjorative label for color mixtures that occur widely in nature and are indispensable in all historical and most contemporary painting styles.

28. The "luminosity" in watercolors arises from the reflection from the white paper, which reduces the contrast ratio and increases the brightness of the painting surface; it does not come from light passing through pigment particles.

29. The "transparency" in watercolors is not in the pigments, but in the spacing between the pigment particles: opaque or "sedimentary" paints can be made transparent by diluting them, applying as a seamless wash, and avoiding paint buildup into a visible paint layer.

30. The designation of hues as "secondary" or "tertiary" has no relevance in modern color theory.

31. The a+/a– and b+/b– dimensions of modern color theory — the modern primary colors — are the most effective framework for analyzing complementary color relationships.

32. Adding a green "primary" in concept, and use of a green paint in practice, is an efficient and accurate framework for color analysis and paint mixing that is sanctioned by a long painting tradition.

33. Because the adaption of the eye to natural light is organized around the a+/a– and b+/b– dimensions, the modern primaries provide a comprehensive framework to analyze the relations between illumination, visible color and paint mixture.

additive & subtractive color mixing

34. An ideal additive primary color must stimulate only one type of receptor cone (L, M or S) as strongly as possible, and stimulate the other two types of cone as little as possible.

35. The optimal choice of physical lights for additive color media are typically orange red (R), green (G) and violet blue (B).

36. An ideal subtractive primary color must stimulate two types of receptor cones (L and M, or L and S, or M and S) as strongly and equally as possible, and stimulate the third type of cone as little as possible.

37. The choice of appropriate subtractive primary pigments depends on the variety of colorants available in a given medium, their price and physical attributes, and the range of colors in the image to be reproduced.

38. Visual color does not define a unique material color (reflectance or transmittance curve).

39. The material color (reflectance or transmittance curve) changes with the physical state of the colorant.

40. Individual colorant reflectance curves cannot specify the visual color of a material colorant mixture.

41. Subtractive mixing behaves differently in different types of material mixture.

42. The visual color of a paint does not predict the visual color of mixtures made with the paint.

43. The material color of a paint is defined by the visual colors it makes in mixtures with all other paints.

visual color relationships

44. Visual color, the domain of color experience, is the foundation for all conceptual color relationships.

45. Illuminance is manifest inside color experience, as a qualitative color attribute or "color consistency".

46. Luminance contrast produced by illuminance contrast produces a local increase in both lightness contrast and chromaticity contrast, with minimal effects on hue.

47. Vision primarily and preferentially interprets surface luminances (reflectance) in terms of the spatial distribution of light in a three dimensional environment.

modern color theory: applications

material color relationships


More principles.


Last revised 07.28.2010 • © 2010 Bruce MacEvoy