Red, yellow and blue are considered primary colors in the art world. This primary system of red, yellow and blue predates modern scientific color theory. Yet it persists in painting color theory today. This is what most artists learn and it is what children around the world are taught in art classes.These three primaries do not correspond to the subtractive primaries dictated by human color vision.
The more accurate and more scientific color primary system for subtractive color is magenta, cyan and yellow. (Pigment is subtractive color. This is the process of subtracting color as the light waves are absorbed and reflected off the surface of the pigment.) Subtractive color is also used in printing and photography. Just take a quick look at the ink cartridges in your desktop printer.
The primary colors for additive color, anything using light such as computer monitors and televisions, are red, green and blue. So we have two scientific primary color systems, additive and subtractive, and then we have the “painting” color primary system. Artists are still clinging to an outdated model of a color primary system.
Does using an outdated primary system make a difference? It is difficult to mix colorful greens, cyans, purples and magentas using these three colors, but most artists use multiple colors on their palettes. Unlike photography and printing, we have the ability to use variations of reds, yellows and blues. And even a simplified palette can be incredibly powerful. Just take another look at some Zorn paintings where he used black, vermillion, ochre and white. However, it is quite possible our critical thinking (or mixing) skills are compromised when we cling to a primary system that predates current scientific color theory.
Is our dependence on cadmium red a result of red, yellow, blue thinking? While cadmium red (or similar variation) is useful, it is not nearly as useful for mixing as a red that leans more towards magenta, such as alizarin or quinacridone. Think about the possibilities of alizarin, mixed with a blue such as cyan, or alizarin mixed with yellow. Now consider what happens when cadmium red is substituted for alizarin.
Artists are dealing with the perception and psychology of color. Our job is to interpret, not to try and replicate, which is an impossible task. Light is the science of additive color; pigment is the science of subtractive color. Light is a physical entity; seeing color is a perception. Let’s not make this any more confusing than it already is.
Why the world map you know is wrong
In yet another example of inaccurate and misleading information, we are still using a world map created in 1596. The original map was made by a globe maker named Mercator to help sailors navigate the world, and its distortions and exaggerations are the result of the difficulty inherent in portraying a spherical world on a flat map. Imagine stretching a map on a globe to fit a rectangular space. Despite attempts at other projections, the Mercator map has maintained its dominance over centuries and is now used at Google Maps and Bing. We think Greenland is huge, but in reality it is about four times smaller than the United States and 14.5 times smaller than Africa. In fact, Greenland is about the size of Saudi Arabia. Africa is actually larger than Russia and Brazil is more than five times larger than Alaska.
Want to learn more? Check out the app The True Size Of.
And while we are at it - no, the moon is not huge when on the horizon. It did not zoom in for a visit. It is an illusion. Other perceptual observations such as perceived distance and the size of nearby objects are used by the brain to determine what size an object appears to be.
Also, your mirror image is not life-sized. This, too, is a perception and not reality. Just measure next time you are looking a mirror. The explanation for this one? We see what we know and what we expect to see.