My beef with the colour Magenta

Actually, it’s with the people who categorize colours or teach colour theory. According to Wiki, Magenta isn’t really considered a colour because “It is an extra-spectral color, meaning it cannot be generated by a single wavelength of light, being a mixture of red and blue wavelengths.” For this reason, Magenta has been put on the same shelf as the now non-planet Pluto. Magenta, according to this definition, is a non-colour. I strongly disagree and I’m going to tell you why.

As a painter and illustrator, I like colour charts. I’m fascinated by them, strange but true. Most people know of the basic 6-colour chart. Inaccurate if anything. In my world, I use 2 “blues” and 2 “reds”… cyan, blue, red and magenta. I use cyan because blue and yellow won’t make a green, but cyan and yellow will. I use magenta because red and blue wont make violet, but magenta and blue will.

This is the basic 6-colour chart that most people are familiar with. I’m here to tell you this is completely wrong.

1basic_colourwheel

Below is what you would actually get if you mixed these primaries (yellow and red, red and blue, blue and yellow) together. Tell me there isn’t something horrifyingly off here. Why do we teach this wheel to our kids when it clearly is so wrong in the first place? No wonder so many people grow up afraid of colour in North America.

2basic_mixed_colourwheel

How do you get a cyan, a hot pink or a bright green? You can’t. As you can see, they don’t look like anything like they’re supposed to look. It’s also the reason why if you google “color wheel” in the image section of Google, the resulting hits have colours that are all over the place. The greens are either too electric or too dull, most colour wheels don’t even have magenta or cyan in them and the blues are so out off-base, there’s no way you could mix a violet from them. In most cases, the colours have actually been “fudged”. And it’s not just on the net. It’s everywhere people are teaching colour theory.

3pocket_colour_chartaHere’s one sold as a “guide to mixing color”. Many creative people are familiar with this one as are most art students. The first thing I notice is its actually a 6-colour wheel (3 primaries, 3 secondaries) with tertiaries.  The second thing is if you were to point to all the major colours not including tertiaries, you should see a logical pattern… like skipping over every other colour all the way around the wheel. But you don’t. Starting at yellow, you skip over yellow-green to get to green, skip over blue-green to get to blue, skip over blue-violet to get to violet and then from there it falls apart. The next colour red-violet. If you skip it, then you’re omitting a purple from your collection of major colours… but you’ve been skipping over every other colour when you started. Do you leave it out? This discrepancy is because there is no magenta in this wheel.

If you take an even closer look, you’ll also notice that some of the major colours are wrong… primaries and secondaries. Violet is actually blue, blue is almost cyan but contains too much magenta. There is no way you could make this particular red violet using this red and violet. Even the yellow contains too much magenta in it to mix these oranges. The primary green appears too blue which puts all its mixes into question as well. Let me show you what I mean.

4pocket_colour_chart

The small circles outside the wheel are the actual colour mixtures you’d get if you were to use this colour wheel. The mixtures that this chart claims to make are clearly wrong. In some cases (red-violet, blue-green, red-orange) very wrong. These colours have been inaccurately stated here. The bars running around the rim are the corrected colours showing how far off the samples are. The blue has too much red in it to work as a primary colour. (The whole idea of a primary colour is that it is pure, with no other colour in it… a colour that cannot be mixed from other colours.) Their blue is more of a mixed colour, than a primary. Same is true for violet, red, yellow and green.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is no magenta in this wheel. Without magenta, how is their violet plus their red supposed to produce that red-violet? It’s impossible. The small circle shows you what you would really get instead. But wait a second, we’re not talking about the six basic colour wheel that they teach to kids here. This is sold to art students! And it’s clearly wrong! Again, these colours have been fudged. They are not in any way accurate colour mixtures.

5artists_wheel

This is my colour wheel. Designers and artists know it as the artist’s colour wheel. You can easily see how blending one colour with another two doors down would result in the colour shown. It makes perfect sense and each colour can clearly be imagined blending into to one another to create the appropriate hue it should.

Now this colour wheel should make (visual) sense. You can clearly see how you can now move through this colour wheel to reach the next (logical) hue.

This is what we should be teaching our kids. The 6-colour basic wheel is nothing more than bunk and nonsense. I say if you’re going to teach anyone colour, teach it properly and include magenta (and cyan) in the lesson. Magenta and cyan occur in nature so we know the colours exist naturally. Having said that, I realize that what the Wiki definition is really saying; is that when we split white light using a prism, magenta doesn’t show up as a separated colour. In fact, it doesn’t show up at all. That’s because magenta doesn’t have a wavelength attributed to it. I get that. I also get that some people refer magenta as an imaginary colour because of it. But I don’t buy it.

6prism_sample

That’s like saying that we’re all imagining the same colour at the same time. It cannot be imaginary if other people are seeing the same thing as you are. That sentence simply does not make sense to me. It’s also possible that its just poorly labeled. I think its because magenta’s wavelength is possibly too low to register like the other colours in the spectrum or that we simply haven’t come up with the best reason why this is. To call it imaginary or that it doesn’t exist as a colour is simply, in my mind, misleading in an already misled, misinformed and misunderstood subject.

In my world, magenta is a clear member of my colour spectrum. It exists because I can see it in nature. I can even paint with it and I’m pretty certain the tube said “Magenta” and not “Warning: This is not a real colour. Please use your imagination.”

All I know is without it, I can’t create certain colours which  makes me believe these colours couldn’t exist without it (take that Wiki!) So I refuse to call it imaginary, wavelength or not. I say teach everyone the same colour wheel, the same colour theory. Don’t fudge the colours in printing just because you don’t believe enough in your own product. Colour theory is easy. It’s not complicated. Understanding it is easy as long as you are being taught what really happens in nature. It should make sense and not be polluted with someone’s (incorrect) idea of what he or she thinks we’ll be able to grasp. People are smart… and colour is easy.

Because life is colourful.

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9 thoughts on “My beef with the colour Magenta

  1. White light is a wavefront with power(energy) equally distributed across the visible frequency spectrum. When the wavefront has power levels distributed at different frequencies so that some parts the spectrum have more or less power, then we call that a color. The wavefront that impacts the eye to produce the sensation of Magenta has high power levels in the lower and higher frequencies and low power levels in the center frequencies. It is just one wavefront but shaped in power intensity vs frequency. There is no such thing as different colors of light waves, only a wavefront that has a power vs frequency shape. As such there are not incoming different frequencies of light to produce a color, its just one wavefront. No separate blue or red light enters the eye to be combined and produce a color. The color is inherent in the energy distribution of the wavefront which stimulates the frequency sensitive biological receptors in proportion to the power levels within the wavefront.

    It is for this reason that Magenta is (as are all colors) spectral. It is the energy vs frequency distribution of the incoming wavefront that produces the perceived color sensation. Any color you like can be produced by a single tunable light source through modulation.

    Magenta is a REAL color.
    One wavefront …. not seperate incoming light colors.

  2. I know that when I was a child in school, because purple is nonspectral, a teacher claimed that it wasn’t a “real color”. Of course, that isn’t true; the deepest magenta beyond red, and the deepest violet beyond blue, are not the same color, and so some nonspectral colors are needed to complete the color circle.

    As can be seen from a CIE diagram.

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  7. Do I need your permission to use any of your color wheels in a publication? If so, I am requesting your permission to use two of your illustrations from your website.

    Thank you

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