Colours of twenty two common artists pigments at various thicknesses over a white ground. Photographed colours displayed in YCbCr space using the program ColorSpace by Philippe Colantoni.

This website presents an account of the dimensions of colour and light perception, written for painters using either traditional or digital media. The conceptual framework presented here was developed as a component of Colour, Light and Vision, a course in colour theory and practice for artists that I have been presenting since 1998 at the Julian Ashton Art School, Sydney, and Theories of Colour, a lecture course on the history of colour theory and practice that I presented at the National Art School, Sydney, in 2009-2011.

Colour training in the arts today is deeply divided between modern and "traditional" colour theory (MacEvoy, 2009). Modern colour theory characteristically emphasizes concepts of colour space, such as the framework of hue, value and chroma devised by the American artist and art teacher Albert Munsell (1858-1918). Additionally, modern colour theory incorporates the discoveries by which nineteenth-century scientists beginning with Helmholtz, Maxwell and Hering revolutionized our practical and theoretical understanding of colour as radically as Darwin transformed our understanding of biology over the same period. (This revolution partly involved sweeping away confusion surrounding discoveries made much earlier by Newton). In contrast, traditional colour theory anachronistically maintains conceptions of colour that prevailed before these late 19th-early 20th century developments, and its relationship (or lack of relationship) to modern colour theory is in some ways like that of so-called "Creation Science" to modern biology.

A defining characteristic of traditional colour theory is its adherence to the three historical primary colours, yellow, red and blue. In contrast, modern colour theory recognizes that there are different primary colours (and different complementary relationships) in different contexts, for example additive primaries, subtractive primaries, and psychological primaries. I have argued here that the historical primaries (Y, R, B) are an unconscious conflation of the four psychological primaries - yellow (Y), red (R), blue (B) and green (G) - and the three subtractive primaries, yellow (Y), magenta (BR) and cyan (GB). By this view, yellow, red and blue are the three names that we applied to our best colourant-mixing primary hues when we first discovered them, before it occurred to us that the optimal hues for colourant mixing might not be the same as the hues we mentally experience as pure and primary.

Implicit in much traditional colour theory is a view of colour mixing that I call here the intermixture theory. This view rests on the "common sense" assumptions that colours are physical properties residing in materials, and that these properties themselves intermix when we mix paints, so that, for example, the colour green is considered to "contain" yellow and blue. In many minds this view exists in quarantine alongside knowledge of Isaac Newton and the spectrum, without apparent awareness of the inconsistency, as it does for example in Johannes Itten's highly influential The Art of Color (1961). Other incarnations of traditional colour theory adhere to the later (but still obsolete) idea that colour mixing depends on shared "impurities" or "biases" in the yellow, red and blue primaries. This 19th century idea has lately been reanimated as the rationale for a "split primary" palette system consisting of warm and cool versions of the three historical primaries. In modern colour theory, colour mixing in paints is understood to involve a combination of subtractive and additive-averaging processes that result in broadly predictable mixing paths through hue-value-chroma space. For example, mixing paths of yellow and blue paints tend to curve through low-chroma greens. This happens not because green "contains" yellow and blue, nor because some yellow and blue paints contain "impurities" of green, but because subtractive mixing exposes the substantial green-wavelength reflectance that is a major and essential contributor to the colour of all yellow and blue paints.

Traditional colour theory uses the ideas of the "colour wheel" and the value scale, but typically these are not integrated into any kind of practical three-dimensional colour space. For example, in The Art of Color Itten reverts to a simplistic early 19th century spherical model that (unlike Munsell's) places the strongest colours of all hues on the equator, irrespective of their tonal value. Itten's sphere thus ignores Munsell's recognition of the differences in both value and absolute chroma of these colours, and lacks a consistent representation of the dimension of value that is vital to most painters. In contrast, modern colour theory makes constant practical use of concepts of colour space. On this site I will focus on how the Munsell dimensions of hue, value and chroma make a potent framework for observing colours, for understanding colour mixing in paints, and for painting effects of light from the imagination. Three-dimensional frameworks are also used in all modern studies of colour perception, colour interaction or "harmony", and the psychological associations of colours.

Texts explaining modern color theory for artists began to appear soon after the Helmholtz-Maxwell revolution, the most influential being Modern Chromatics, or The Students' Text-book of Color (1879) by American physics professor and painter Ogden Rood, which was published in three languages and numerous editions into the early 20th century (and again in 1973). A glance through its 330 pages is a revelation as to the level of technical understanding of color and light that was considered appropriate for art students in the era of Sargent and the late impressionists. Good introductions to many aspects of modern color theory are available today in The New Munsell Student Color Set and James Gurney's Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, and I recommend these to any students who want a more basic survey of the subject before approaching my own site. I may well have created here a work that will seem both too technical to many practising and student painters, and excessively simplistic to colour specialists. To the latter I can offer only my apologies, but to the former I would say that creating visual effects in a painting, whether from life or from the imagination, is a technical as well as an artistic problem. What I am presenting here is really no more complex than any other technical aspect of painting, such as perspective. For more detailed information on colour science for artists, and on historical and modern systems of colour dimensions, the best sources are the books of Professor Rolf Kuehni, but Bruce MacEvoy's enormous Handprint website provides online information and opinion on many advanced topics.

Art and design teachers educated in the age of Itten now occupy positions of authority and influence, and it is very clear that many of them are not planning to give up their attachment to simplistic traditional colour theory any time soon. Student demand, fed by the exposure to modern colour theory now facilitated by the internet and the use of graphics programs, presents the only hope for speedy change. The current situation among art teachers is especially disappointing when we recall that a century ago it was, not a scientist, but an artist and art teacher who was developing the system that would become the cornerstone of modern colour theory.


Warm thanks go to the "Dimensions of Colour team", Xavier Peria, Ray Kristanto, Noopur Patel, Atania Trinata, and Debolina Bandyopadhyay from the 2007 second year Multimedia course at the Billy Blue School of Graphic Arts, Sydney, and their teacher Dave Agius, for creating the site, including the interactive animations. Thanks also to Ben Green for generously hosting the site during its first year online, and to ibiblio, "the public's library and digital archive" at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, for accepting the site into their collection and hosting it since then. While I can be contacted by email, if you wish to ask me a question about colour I would prefer you did so on my thread on the forum, where the discussion might be of interest to others. This work has already benefited from discussions over many years with my students in Colour, Light and Vision and Theories of Colour. Finally, thanks to all of those who have added links to this site on their websites, blogs and forum posts, and especially to the following for their published comments:

Mark Fairchild (USA), Professor of Color Science & Imaging Science, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, and author of the textbook Color Appearance Models (Wiley): Essentially an online textbook/tutorial on appearance, or "the dimensions of colour and light" written from the perspective of artists. The site is very nicely done and blends technical and artistic information well.

James Gurney (USA), illustrator, fine artist, author of numerous books including the Dinotopia series and Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter: David Briggs is none other than the mastermind behind the website "Dimensions of Color." It's one of the best resources on light and color on the Internet. I owe much of what I've learned on the topic to [Dr] Briggs. ...His website "HueValueChroma" has that rare combination of depth and clarity.

David Gray (USA), fine artist and painting teacher: ... an absolutely indispensable source of color knowledge for the realist painter: All of you who have asked me about color really need to visit this site and get this information into your artistic thought processes. It's going to be a little rough going for some who shy away from technical language. It's also going to challenge some of the conventional color "wisdom" that has been taught in art schools for years. I personally find the information fascinating and VERY USEFUL ... I hope HueValueChroma will give you more control over your color choices as it has me.

Douglas Flynt (USA), fine artist and painting teacher at the Grand Central Academy of Art, New York: "" is a great resource to better understand color and how light affects color.

Slade Wheeler (USA), fine artist. His site hosts a large amount of well organized/concise information coupled with informative illustrations, including 3D modeling and animations, all of which make this one of the best online color theory resources that I've been able to find.

Danny Pascale (USA), CEO of BabelColorR colour measurement and analysis: A well illustrated site on light, color, and its perception. The content is a course in applied color science optimized for artists but useful for all. The language is clear, with just a few simple equations and lots of descriptions.

Mary-Angela Papalaskari (USA), lecturer, Department of Computing Sciences, Villanova University, Pennsylvania. ... a set of webpages that give a great overview of color as it is perceived, from the artist's perspective.

William Cromar (USA), artist, lecturer and Art Program Coordinator, Abington College, Penn State University. "Color is a fascinating topic which we've only been able to scratch the surface of in this title" [ART 314 - Material Culture: Light and Color]. "If you wish to go in greater depth, visit David Briggs' comprehensive website The Dimensions of Colour."

Thomas Scholes (USA), digital artist and painting instructor, moderator of Futurepoly forum: I think the best advice I can give is to study light in terms of physics, this website is a great resource in those regards.

Daz Watford (UK), video game developer, concept artist: Now this website is big and intimidating; but it's a great explanation of how colour created by light works. It's quite sciencey and took me three goes to start to "get it", but it's worth the struggle. It will change your understanding of colour with a "mind = blown" Inception ...

Paul Foxton (UK), fine artist, author of website Learning to See: ... this site has more information than any site should really be allowed to have in one place. David's site is nothing short of incredible. There's so much information there, and it bears such careful and close reading, that I can only take it in bite sized chunks. I read half a page and have to think about it for a week. This the best site about colour I know of. The relevance of all of it to painting may not be apparent to you straight away, and it may appear too scientific for 'feeling' types. But I find myself mulling over things I've read there as I work, and it always results in deeper insights into the way we perceive light and colour. Very highly recommended.

ALISON online training (UK): This course is ideal for any learner who practices the visual arts, either professionally or as a hobby, and who wants to greatly enhance their knowledge and understanding of colour theory.

Atelier Art Classes, Brisbane (AUS): An incredible resource for the painter [and] a fascinating and informative resource for anybody who has an interest in the perception of colour.

Michael Hosticka (USA), recent Game Art & Design graduate, Ringling College of Art and Design: I learned more about practical application of color within 10 minutes of reading that than I have in all of my art classes combined.... I would highly recommend the website to anyone who wants to improve their understanding of light and color and doesn't mind technical reading.

Interactive demonstration of additive colour mixing. Drag the top, middle and bottom triangular yellow sliders to the left to control the brightnesses of the red, green and blue spotlights respectively. Copyright David Briggs and Ray Kristanto, 2007.

Site updates

This site was first published in 2007, and an extensive revision is currently underway. Construction work should be completed soon, but in the meantime please tread carefully around any open inconsistencies! Pages updated or added so far are listed below, with the latest revisions indicated in red:

1.1 COLOURS IN SPACE (revised 12/4/2012)
Hue, value and chroma; Painting colours in space; The dimensions of what, exactly?

1.2 THE DIMENSIONS INTRODUCED (revised 19/4/2012)
Hue; Value; Chroma; Brightness and "brilliance"; Saturation; Other dimensional systems

4.1 ADDITIVE PRIMARIES (revised 5/8/2012)

4.2 ADDITIVE MIXING (revised 5/8/2012)

4.3 ADDITIVE COMPLEMENTARIES (revised 5/8/2012)

4.4 ADDITIVE-AVERAGING MIXING (revised 5/8/2012)

4.5 ADDITIVE MIXING AND OBJECT COLOURS (new, published 5/8/2012)

5.1 SUBTRACTIVE MIXING PROCESSES (revised 13/8/2012)
Subtractive mixing in filters; in coloured illumination; in paint media; in digital painting

5.2 IDEAL SUBTRACTIVE PRIMARIES (revised 12/8/2012)


6.1 MIXING PAINTS (revised 2/11/2012)
Paint mixing processes; Paint-mixing primaries

6.2 PRIMARY COLOURS (revised 2/11/2012)
Theories of primary colours; The historical primaries; "Split-primary" palettes

6.3 PAINT-MIXING PRINCIPLES (revised 2/11/2012)
Mixing with paints of different hues; with white; with grey; with black; of transparent paints

7.1 HUE FROM ARISTOTLE TO NEWTON (revised 15/4/2013)
Hue before the hue circle; Newton's hue system

Origins of the "artists' colour wheel"; What colour are YRB?; Itten's colour theory

Introduction; Goethe's hue system; Hering and Ostwald; The NCS system; An opponent-hue "artists' colour wheel"

3.6 WHAT IS COLOUR? - Response to Alan Alda's 2014 Flame Challenge (new, published 09/3/2014)

3.7 ANSWERS TO WHAT IS COLOUR? (new, published 09/3/2014)
Corrections to: This Is Not Yellow (Michael Stevens, Vsauce, 2012); Colour Mixing: The Mystery of Magenta (Steve Mould, 2013)

Unless otherwise indicated, all material on this website is copyright David Briggs, 2007-2013, and is licensed for personal and commercial use under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia license.

Creative Commons License

David Briggs

Modified December 17, 2012. Original text here.

Next: Part 1: Introduction

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