Thursday, July 10, 2008

Describing a colour space - there's more than one colour wheel!

Philipp Otto Runge’s Color Sphere (Die Farbenkugel).
The two two images show the surface of the sphere, while the bottom two show horizontal and vertical cross sections.

Over time, many people have tried to develop ways of thinking about how colours relate to one another in space. I've been trying to learn more about this and also trying to find a way of making it all make sense to me.

Goethe's Colour Wheel

With an MBA and a past life as a management consultant I've developed a bit of a tendency over the years to 'box it up'! Hence this post is about a Matrix of Theories about Colour Space - which is the method I've adopted to categorise some of the people who have tried describe colour in terms of spatial relationships - to describe a colour space.

It has led me to the conclusion that there is rather more to describing how colours relate than the simple colour wheel. In fact it's led me to questionoing whether the colour wheel is the best way of describing relationships at all.

A Matrix of Theories about Colour Space and Colour Relationships

My current Matrix of Theories about Colour Space (see below) is my third version - and I'm welcoming comments on it!

A Matrix of Colour Space Theories
copyright Katherine Tyrrell
CLICK to see larger version; download for personal and educational use only for FREE here
(you need to download the file to access the html links and sources)
  • the columns concern different approaches to analysing colour. I've used the additive, subtractive, partitive approaches to differentiate processes relating to different fields.
  • the rows are the different shapes which have been used over time for describing and modelling relationships between colour in space. The shapes - lines, circles, spheres, triangles, cones, cubes, columns, trees - are influenced by the principles which underpin each theory and are partly about how many colours are used for primary colours and whether or not the model is 2D or 3D.
  • I've provided a very brief synopsis about each person's theory beneath their name.
  • Footnotes indicate the periods of schools of painting which particular people influenced.
You can download this matrix as a pdf file from my website. Note that it is for personal and educational use only.

Munsell's colour system

Critical points to note are:
  • it helps a lot if you understand whether a colour theory being quoted relates to light, pigment or perception by the eye
  • further work around eg complementary colours, analogous colours, simultaneous contrast etc is, in part, dependent on which theory of colour space you relate to.
  • If you're working with pigment and dyes then theories relating to how pigments/dyes behave are of more relevance than theories about how light behaves and how colour is produced on a computer screen.
  • partitive theories relating to how colours are perceived have influenced approaches to painting which employ principles about how colours behave eg Impressionism
I'd be very interested to hear your comments about this - and any suggestions as to whether or not I've got people in the right place as I think I'm bound to have made mistakes as this is a learning process for me.
Farbkreis by Johannes Itten (1961)

Plus have I missed anybody out who's really significant?

I must note that my matrix was derived from reading about the work of the colour theorists. Principle influences on me have been:

The Making A Mark Project on Colour - previous posts

Resources for Artists information sites created by makingamark


Adam Cope said...

3 thoughts...these seem to be missing :

- the x & y axis with the colour gamut plotted out (variant, a kind of slice of the munsell tree?). this is very useful for plotting colour ranges ( those that can be seen, be painted , be printed). From this model comes our current numerical listing for RGB screen colours very thing you're looking at right now.

- there must be something more systematic for plotting out optical mixing of colours (esp as it's in your field of art interest)?
ie what colours put side by side in the right dosage gives this colour?

- also where's the mixing wheel as opposed to the visual wheel?

Casey Klahn said...

I am beginning to warm to the linear system, based on my own palette. As resistant as I am to the green-as-primary theories (pigment-inferior theories) it is interesting that I set my own palette up with green as a dominant hue (intense greens have their own compartment).

In a conversation I had last week with a printer software engineer, I was interested in what he had to say about the spectrum and how it appears linearly. Leonardo has it this way, and with the green-parity, which is intriguing.

Your matrix is a great resource, and I appreciate your making it, Katherine. My interests in studying the different color space theories now lies in exploring the holes in the theories, or the contradictions. All the more reason to find "what works for me," as you've said.

Moira said...

Hi Katherine - I just recently discovered your blog and I think it's terrific! I linked to you today on my blog Dog Art Today in a story about Andy Warhol's brilliant use of color. View it here...

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