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The Shapes of Color Schemes

Last week I introduced the concept of color wheel masking, and suggested that any color scheme can be
represented or mapped as a shape on a color wheel. Lets take that idea and run with it.

I painted the wheel at left, below. As you recall, it has the full-intensity hues arranged around the outside edge,
gradating to neutral gray in the center. It uses the traditional subtractive red-yellow-blue pigment primaries.

This painter's color wheel goes back for centuries, and was influenced by the theories of Goethe and Newton. Two
of the astute commentators on this blog, ZD and Painterdog, correctly pointed out that the traditional painter's color
wheel is technically obsolete and even somewhat arbitrary and dogmatic, but I still have a fondness for it.

On the right is a mathematically correct digital color wheel based on the red-green-blue additive primaries of light.
Spaced halfway between RG and B are cyan, magenta, and yellow, the subtractive colors used in printing inks.

My photographer friend Tobey Sanford created this wheel (downloadable here). It may be less familiar to traditional
painters. It places the component colors differently around the wheel, but for the purpose of exploring the world of
color, especially on our computer screens, it will serve us better in some respects, and well see it again from time to
time on future Color Sundays.

Regardless of which wheel we use, most color schemes are built from three component colors or primaries
arranged in a triangle called a triad. The area inside the triangle is called the gamut. It includes all the possible
mixtures from those three primaries, whatever they are.

The primaries dont have to be red, yellow, and blue. You can use any three colors as primaries, even orange-green-
purplewhich in fact is what early color photographs called autochromes used.

In the case of the limited palettes we looked at a couple weeks ago, for example, we talked about using a less
saturated pigment like yellow ochre instead of cadmium yellow. This reduced or muted yellow corresponds with a
point well inside the margin of the wheel.

By using a paper mask and rotating it around the wheel, we automatically get interesting reduced gamuts, each with
a dominant full-intensity hue and two subordinate, weaker primaries.

The mask sets us free to choose exactly the color schemes we want. Were not limited to the haphazard choices of
existing tube colors in limited palettes; instead we can use the mask to analyze or invent any gamut.

The equilateral triangle that I call the atmospheric triad is only one kind of color wheel mask. There are other
shapes, and each of these basic shapes carries its own personality, regardless of the component colors.
Atmospheric triads are moody and subjective, great for color scripting a graphic novel or a film.

When you rotate the triangular window around the color wheel, you can see the color groupings change, yet each
one seems complete to itself. It suggests the feeling of walking from a room lit by incandescent light into another
room lit by fluorescent light, and then stepping outside into the blue twilight. Your brain shifts from one color
environment to another. Ill talk more about the brain physiology behind color adaptation in a future Color Sunday.

Heres a color mask that crosses over the center a bit more, which I call the shifted triad. Its shifted toward red,
which means the subjective gray or neutral (N) in the composition is also shifted toward red. The secondaries (S)
are what you get when you mix the dominant full-intensity red with the weaker blue-violet and blue-green primaries

Heres a complementary scheme, similar to what weve seen

before. The complementary gamut, regardless of its component
colors, suggests an opposition of elemental principles, like fire
and ice. At the same time, its fairly stable, because its neutral
coincides with the center of the wheel.

This one is called mood and accent. Most of the picture is in

one color mood, with just one accent area from across the wheel
and no intermediate mixtures. By the way, note that the
octagonal color wheel mask and the color wheel slide into the
top of the aluminum U-molding.

You could also pick an accent color thats offset from the complement. It looks less natural, and therefore perhaps
more attention-getting.

What happens when you create a mask that shifts the color
balance off the axis? To me it feels like one of those
diminished seventh guitar chords, or a dollop of sour
cream dropped into sweet squash soup.

What effect do you feel with a split complementary

arrangement, avoiding secondaries? To me it seems
vibrant and attractive, but also a little unsettled and jarring.

What if the mask selects colors all to one side of the

wheel? To me it gives a sense of brilliancy, purity, or
weirdness, not something youd find in nature, but great for
otherworldly science fiction.

Theres no limit to the kinds of masks you can cut, and then
the infinite combinations you can generate when you start
rotating a mask above your own wheel.

Next week, Ill show you how to take a gamut youve

selected, and prepare the paints on your palette so that
you can use those exact colors in your own painting.
The beauty of this method is that it jolts you out of any
color mixing habits, and at the same time it forces you
to stay within the limits youve chosen.

Tomorrow: Mountains Underfoot