The Three Dimensions of Color

March 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Goethe’s color wheel

The color-wheel. What would painters do without it’s simple graphic display of basic color theory? An intuitive leap by none other than Sir Isaac Newton brought the color-wheel into being, and some form of it has underpinned the teaching of color theory ever since. Today it seems that a cottage industry of color-wheel bashing has sprung up, coinciding, I suspect, with the explosion of How-To art books and blogs. If you want to sell something, first create a “New! Improved!” alternative.

There are blogs on color theory which denigrate the color-wheel model as an obsolete product of the Enlightenment that no longer matches what we now know about color perception. Never mind that the “newer, simpler” explanations they offer inevitably fall back on the basic tropes of the color wheel to discuss important concepts, such as complements being “across the wheel.”  One notable book published a few years ago, Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, is petulant about the supposed failure of traditional color theory and uses that as a pretext for page after page of reproductions, printed in fugitive dyes, showing what actually happens when you mix this pigment with that pigment. Most art students will have discovered these anomalies in the color palette within their first two years of study. Everything that happens on the palette can be traced back to the basic theories of the color circle. If you locate the relative position on the wheel of any two colors, with respect to their hue, temperature, and intensity, and draw a line between them you can easily see why two particular pigments produce the color qualities they do. It’s a simple equation of distance.

The color-wheel model persists because it contains the most useful information in the smallest package. It’s not perfect – lacking a third dimension it can only demonstrate two properties of color, hue and intensity – but basic color-wheel concepts still hold true. The only failure is forgetting to bring theory back to practice. No amount of color theory can substitute for familiarity with the palette.

A 3-dimensional model of color movement: the Munsell color tree

For a clear, concise demonstration of color mixing for painters check out this video by Robert Gamblin, the founder of Gamblin Colors. Using a computer animated 3-D model patterned on the Munsell color system, Gamblin shows the interrelationship of the three main properties of color: hue, value, and intensity by linking them to the three dimensions of “color space.”


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