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Best Practices for Graphic Designers, Color Works by John Cantwell, Eddie Opara

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Diagram of how the human eye
perceives colors when light interacts
with the retina.
We all see colors slightly differently from one another.
This is normally due to how the photoreceptor cells
within our eyes measure frequency of light that allows
us to see several million colors.
Wheel of
Fortune and
Color Systems
Optic nerve
Retina
Photorecepter cells
fig. 001
170 Color Works The Foundation
6.4
Basic spectral diagram repre-
senting how white light is dispersed by
a prism, separating the light into the
seven distinct color values. Within the
color spectrum, certain colors have
more importance than others. Notice
the difference between red and orange
and blue and indigo because of their
similar values.
These photoreceptor cells are found within the retina, which is the sur-
face at the back of the eye; these cells are made up of two structures,
rods and cones. Cones are central to the way humans perceive the
world, working as color channels allowing us to see in color. When light
touches the surface of the retina, nerve impulses are initiated and are
sent via the optic nerve to the brain to establish visual imagery. Cones
detect light at differing wavelengths: small, medium, and large. This is
commonly known as trichromatic color vision (also known as the Young–
Helmholtz theory), where the three cones or color channels are respon-
sive to red, green, and blue (RGB). The interaction of these cones
occurring at specific frequencies allows humans to see millions of dif-
ferent colors. An opposing theory to this is the opponent color theory
in which yellow and red, green and blue, and black and white directly
compete against each other. (Wherever there is one theory regarding
color, there is always another that opposes it.)
Sir Isaac Newton’s studies on the theory of color vision are paramount
to understanding how natural, white light and color work. In his publi-
cation Opticks, Newton’s theories dictate that through the diffraction
or bending of light using a prismatic band, spectral color is revealed.
The colors in the spectrum that he revealed are red, orange, yellow,
green, blue, indigo, and violet—ROY G. BIV is an easy acronym to remem-
ber the color names in the spectrum; another, more poet example is
Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.
Newton generated a color wheel that was asymmetrical in structure.
Out of Newton’s findings, red, yellow, and blue (RYB) were initially
established as the set of three primary colors. A secondary set is created
through the mixing between the colors to create orange, indigo, and
violet. But Newton also discovered that by mixing any two or more colors
within the wheel a neutral, darker color, often known as an anonymous
color, results. When all colors in the wheel are mixed white is the result.
An interdependent theory by German playwright and poet Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe, in his physiological treatise Theory of Colours
(Zur Farbenlerne), at first supported and extended Newton’s studies,
but eventually disagreed with them. Goethe believed that when colors
are displayed through a prism, they appear at its edges, and the spec-
trum appears only where the edges diverge. With his treatise, Goethe
illustrated his own version of the color wheel—by being symmetrically
composed, two colors become polar opponents of each other. While
Newton believed that white light is the only source that can generate
colors, Goethe theorized that color is made up of dark and light—that
it is diametrical to light, and through both dark and light interaction,
spectral colors are generated. Along his wheel he applied a subjective
review of each color on the inner wheels. Yellow is perceived as good;
red is beautiful; orange is kingly; green is useful; blue has meaning; and
violet is unwanted. Goethe’s ideals were part-scientific and part-emo-
tional, while Newton’s were pure science.
Over the years, other theorists, artists, and designers have been influ-
enced by both Newton’s and Goethe’s suppositions. One of these
6.2
6.3
Wheel of Fortune and Color Systems
fig. 002
White Light
Dispersion Angle
Yellow
Orange
Violet
Indigo
Green
Blue
Red

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