The Names of Colors

Photo: Pamelia Markwood
Photo: Pamelia Markwood

One student in my Color Theory class at Parsons School of Design had an interesting inquiry regarding the names of colors. I wanted to share my response.

You are beginning to learn about the colors and the names of the colors we see and ways we perceive them. The primary colors for the artist are red, yellow and blue (RYB), also referred to as subtractive colors. The primary spectral hues (rainbow colors) are red, green and blue (RGB), additive colors. The artist creates green by combining yellow and blue. The artist can create all other colors with the three primary colors. You can read the text on pages 104-106 in my book, An Artist’s Handbook, and review the color circle, the invention of which is attributed to Sir Isaac Newton, so you will know the primary color names and see the visual reference, which is labeled with the initials of the colors. You will see that the 3 secondary colors are made from combining two of the primary colors – blue and yellow = green, yellow and red = orange, blue and red = violet. The 6 tertiary colors are noted on the circle with two letters each and are a combination of the two colors noted. You can make tints and shades and colors with less intensity (saturation) with the three primaries and the colors derived from them. You will see examples of this on page 105 as well. When we work with Color Aid paper you will learn a great deal about how we perceive the colors we see. You will be creating your own color circle during the semester, and you could also buy a small one at any art store, if you would want something in addition to the book illustration.

A helpful mnemonic, to facilitate memory of the primary and secondary colors that were also the spectral hues identified and named by Isaac Newton, is ROY G BIV – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Indigo was included, because Newton wanted there to be seven colors to match the musical scale. Next time you see a rainbow, check for indigo.

Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK) are the colors used in four-color printing.

Throughout An Artist’s Handbook, you will see the names of pigments – often named from the source of the pigment. For example the pigment indigo is named for the plant material (the indigofera plant) that it comes from, and titanium white is named thus, because it is the mineral substance, titanium dioxide. There is an excellent little book titled, Colors: The Story of Dyes and Pigments, François Delamare and Bernard Guineau, that would be helpful if you would like to know more about the names and composition of pigments. For additional resources, refer to the bibliography at the back of my book.

In the art and design world and in popular contemporary culture, at any one time, there will be color names created for brands, styles, current fashions, etc. Mauve, robin’s egg blue, eggplant, and sea foam are examples.

I hope this helps. We will discuss all of this in more detail as the semester evolves.