Elements of Design – Color I – Models

This is my third attempt at writing the color segment. Color is a huge topic and much of it is out of the scope of this discussion. I finally realized that much of what I wanted to discuss was beyond the idea of color as an element of design. Therefore, for the following segments we will initially review three of the many color models in existence to insure that the reader understands which ones are relevant. Following that, we will discuss color harmonic schemes then follow up with color contrast schemes. In the last section, there will be a quick discussion of the psychology effects and cultural symbolism inherent in color.

Color Models

There are multiple color models, some based upon perceptual models while others are based on technical models. Each has a different purpose and fills the needs of a particular discipline. I will briefly describe the three most commonly occurring models you will run across in the art and photography world. I will show brief examples of each model and describe when they are used.

The three models are RYB (Red, Yellow, Blue), CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key or blacK), and

RGB (Red, Green, Blue). Most editing programs allow you to choose which model you wish to work in. For instance, a designer might import a photo in RGB then export to CMYK if they need to output to an offset four color printing process.

There is a secondary concern in CMYK and RGB models. The concern is “Color Gamut”. Gamut is another technical model illustrating an ink’s, a pigment’s, a paper’s, or an electronic display’s entire ability to reproduce color spectrums. Gamut is beyond the scope of this discussion but receives mention here because it is of importance to output.


Painters and illustrators working in non-digital methods commonly use the RYB model. Traditional theory has it that when mixing paints or pigments the primary colors are Red, Yellow and Blue. From these primaries, one should be able to mix all other hues. In truth, painters will need separate greens as a basis for mixing hues, a necessity based upon the purity of hues mixable with the primary pigments. When attempting to create greens using only the primary RYB hues, the green mixtures only create dirty colors and are of little use to the painter.

It should be apparent that the RYB model is of little use to the photographer. The reason it is mentioned here is that if you start searching for information on color models or color wheels, you need to pay attention to the primary colors on the model under discussion. If you are trying to relate your knowledge about RGB models while someone is writing about an RYB model it can cause confusion. RYB works great with colored light, but fails with technology’s imperfect pigments.


The CMYK model is important when outputting to a medium like paper. If you take a magnifier and look at most any magazine advertisement photograph, you will see a grid of dots – called a rosette. This grid consists of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black dots. The intensity of the color of individual dots is controlled by the amount of each color needed in that area of the image. Black adds intensity and contrast.

Rosette Pattern

Rosette Pattern taken from a 4 color print job

Image Source

In inkjet or “giclee” printing, the same color model is used, but dots are applied in a different way. Instead of the organized pattern you would see in the offset printing found in magazines, the software in the printer disperses the dots in a controlled mist creating a “stochastic screen” pattern. This pattern is mostly random and invisible, except in very big enlargements. Even then, the viewer must get very close to the large print to see the pattern. The human eye will not resolve the pattern at a normal viewing distance.

Stochastic Screen Patterns

Stochastic Screen Output Patterns from a CMYK Test

Image Source

The reason for using a CMYK model has to do with the limitations involved in mixing inks. Inks by their nature are not opaque as are pigments, and a mixture of RYB inks do not give satisfactory results. They are weak and do not appear true to nature. CMYK colors on the other hand, produce natural colors and better contrast on the page.

If a photographer is still using traditional darkroom printing method, they will be using a CMY model – no K. This is the same model, but instead of working with dyes or pigments, they are mixing light colors with a color enlarger. This model was used to make Type C prints, Type R prints, and Ciba-Chrome prints in the “old” days.


The RGB model is the one most familiar to the digital artist or photographer. Most digital cameras operate under this model for input. This is also the model LCD displays operate under. Below is a close up of an LCD display showing the dot pattern of the screen.

RGB Screen Detail

Detail of an RGB computer monitor

Image Source

Something all artists and photographers should be conscious of is that because of Gamut issues an LCD monitor, even when color balanced, will not exhibit the same colors and intensities as a print. When viewing an image on paper, the colors we perceive form by light bouncing off the pigments or dyes on the paper. When viewing an image on the monitor, the colors generated by the LEDs are emitted by the  glow of Red, Green, and Blue sub pixels.

The Elements of Color

Color consists of hue, saturation and brightness (HSB) for the purposes of this discussion. HSB, may also be referred to as HSL (hue, saturation, luminance) or HSV (hue, saturation, value) depending on the model used within your software. HSV is the most commonly used color control in a photo-editing program. Because photographers are mostly concerned with the RGB model, other color models like CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) and the Munsell color system, etc., are not part of this discussion.

Hue is unadulterated color of full intensity, meaning the hue is at its maximum strength. A hue does not contain any black or white mixed in. Hues are assigned values in the H (Hue) field in the color controls of your imaging software. The number in the field is a numerical value indicating degrees between 0 and 360. Both 0 and 360 indicate the top position of the circle.

Moving clock-wise the primary and secondary colors are as listed at these co-ordinates:

  • Red – 0
  • Yellow – 60
  • Green – 120
  • Cyan – 180
  • Blue – 240
  • Magenta – 300
  • Red – 360
One version of an RGB Color Wheel

One version of an RGB Color Wheel with color co-ordinates from a color picker

Red, listed twice here, reminds the reader that the 0-point and the 360-point co-exist in the same space. Note that in the two images below, the color picker shows 0 in one and 360 in the other for Hue, yet both indicate the same color in the RGB, CMYK, and the LAB fields.

Color picker 1

Color picker indicating red at both 0 and 360.

The two images below show hues resulting from changing the value in the Hfield to 270 and 90 degrees respectively. These are both full intensity colors existing on opposite sides of the color wheel, making them complimentary colors.

Color picker 2

Color pickers indicating complimentary colors existing 180 degrees apart

Tints are the result of mixing white and a hue. If you look closely for the cursor in these examples above, you will see a portion of a circle at the upper right corner of the color picker field. This indicates to us that the chosen color is fully saturated. If the cursor is moved horizontally to the left, the resulting color is a tint of that hue. Below we have moved the cursor half way to the left. You can see that the resulting colors (circled in yellow), are now lighter than the ones above. You could say that the colors chosen are pastel or nearly so. If the cursor moved all the way to the left, no trace of the original hue is left. The resulting color will be white.  Tints are always lighter than the original hue.

Color picker 3

Color picker showing positioning of cursor when tinting color.

Shades are the result of mixing a hue with black. On the color picker below notice the position of the cursor has shifted half way down, vertically, from its original position in the upper right corner. The colors are now shades of the original hue. By adding black, we have darkened or degraded the hue. If taken to the extreme by moving the cursor all the way to the bottom, we would no longer have a hue, only black. Shades are always darker than the original hue.

Color picker - shades

Color picker showing positioning of cursor when shading colors.

Tones are the result of mixing a hue with grey or any amount of both black and white. If the cursor is moved diagonally, regardless of the angle, the resulting color is a tone. Looking at the images below the adjustment is both to the left toward white, and down toward black. Note how the colors are now degraded and flat in character. A toned down color looses intensity.

Color picker - tone

Color picker showing positioning of cursor when making toned colors.

Last, notice that any time you move the cursor all the way to the bottom, the result is black. Any time you move the cursor all the way to the left the result is a grey, black or white.

To sum things up:

  • Hues are pure, fully saturated colors
  • Tints are desaturated by adding white to the hue.
  • Shades are desaturated by adding black to the hue.
  • Tones are desaturated by adding grey (both black and white) to the hue.

The samples below are of a color wheel created in program named Colorimpact from http://www.tigercolor.com/. It appears to be a color planner for designers. Unfortunately, the wheel itself does not comply with any standard model I am aware of. Try to align primary colors in a triangle, you can’t. the closest model I can comprehend from it is the RYB model that painters would use. I have used it here only to show the effects of adding white, grey, or black to the hues. In my opinion these are not representative of accurate color wheels.

In the example below, the  wheels show fully saturated colors at the outer edge of the wheel. The hues become less saturated as you progress toward the center of the wheel. The first wheel illustrates tints (adding white), notice how all colors tinted to the maximum value become white. The second wheel illustrates shades(adding black), notice how all colors in this sample, when shaded to the maximum value become black.

Tints, Shades and Tones

Three color wheels illustrating Tints, Shades and Tones

The last wheel illustrates tones. In this sample, equal amounts of white and black are used resulting in a maximum change to a medium value, neutral grey. By adding increasing amounts of white to the third wheel, you will eventually end up with a sample looking like the first wheel. Similarly, if you add increasing amounts of black, you will end up with a sample looking like the second wheel.

Next time: Color II – Harmonies

Lens, Light and Composition is presented in a structured form with occasional asides. It is not a semi-random presentation of information. To get the greatest benefit from this blog it is advised that you start at the beginning of the table of contents, and work your way down from there. Thanks for reading.