Artemy Lebedev

§ 40. I got the blues

July 21, 1999

Primitive societies distinguished three basic colors: red (blood, fire), white (milk, day), black (soil, night). The more complex and refined the society grows, the broader palette of colors develops in its culture.

Obiter dictum

How many colors are in the rainbow? Three? Or seven? “Seven,” says the perspicacious reader. Some African tribesmen would say the rainbow has two colors: light and dark. A German would deem the question improper, as for him the rainbow includes the entire range of colors, which is to say an infinite variety of hues, tints and shades.

These days the whole array of colors is no longer split into “major” and “minor” ones. It has become a set of highly ordered and determinate figures. The current difference between color systems lies in the degree of fractionation and their ability to describe and display any color rather than in colors themselves that form a basis for the innumerable rounds of mixing and mingling.

A color model is now selected depending on the area of its planned use. CMYK is a color model used in offset printing, RGB—in display devices, LAB Color—to describe and store all the colors that cannot be properly displayed on a monitor or paper.

Housekeeping tip

In theory the mingling of C, M and Y should give black, but in practice we get muddy brown. Therefore black is often added as the fourth color.

Many printers are convinced that in the CMYK abbreviation the letter K stands for the last letter in “black” that was allegedly used to prevent confusion with the letter B that stands for “blue” in the RGB color model.

In actual fact, CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key color with the “key” status reserved for any color one may possibly choose: black or silver or whatever.

For a modern designer finding a color has ceased to be a problem: any of them is yours for the taking. But this is the point where the problem of selection arises: which are actually to be chosen? There are many who resort to mathematical formalization of the available color models on the basis of some numerical data of a color. For instance, the black-and-white color scale (256 stages of graduation) may be broken down into 20 stages:

Nevertheless, the viewer still has the impression of the “complete” color range.

This tiny example is a simplified model of the way today’s designers operate and today’s viewers perceive the results of their operation. Hardly anyone goes to the length of inventing one’s own color model because thinking up a numerical rule in the existing color ranges makes more sense. A sequence of figures is no secret at all. It’s just an easier way for some to strike a harmonious balance amid the infinite expanse of colors.

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