Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow
In the world of printing and photography, the three colors that mix the widest range, or gamut, of colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow.
These “printer’s primaries,” together with black (K), are known by the shorthand CMYK. CMYK inks are used throughout the industries of offset lithography, computer printing, and film photography.
If other industries use CMYK primaries instead of yellow, red, and blue, why don’t painters use them too? One reason is simple force of habit. Cyan and magenta don’t match our mental image of blue and red. These color concepts are deep rooted from childhood.
Can we find these colors as artist’s pigments? Until recently it was hard to find lightfast chemical pigments that would match up with CMY. The pigments Cadmium Yellow Light (known by the Color Index Number PY 35), Quinacridone Magenta (PR 122), and Phthalo Cyan (PB 17) come close. (The Lukas colors above are PY 3, PB 15:3, and PR 122).
Intriguing as this may be, it’s not really the answer. Most of these colors are very transparent, which can be a problem for oil and gouache painters. For painting we need a range of properties, opacity being just one of them. And most of the time we’re not trying to get the widest range of intense colors in a single painting from just three starting colors.
We can add as many starting colors as we want, especially if we want to get a wide range of mixtures. That’s what the top-end computer printers do, as do lithographers printing high quality art reproductions.
We can keep all our favorite pigments, even if they don’t match the printer’s primaries. We aren’t bound to using just three pigments when we’re painting.
But returning to the color wheel, we still need an accurate map to chart our pigments and mixtures. What we’re looking for is a universal way to understand color relationships regardless of the medium or technique we’re using.
CMY circles from Alias 3D Media
Reviewing the posts in this series:
Part 1: Wrapping the Spectrum
Part 2: Primaries and Secondaries
Part 3: Complements, Afterimages, and Chroma
Part 4: Problems with the Traditional Wheel
Part 5: The Munsell System
Part 6: Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow
Part 7: The Yurmby Wheel