Colour - Part 1

‘Robert of York gained battle in vain.’ I was ten when I memorized the rhyme. It was printed on the lid of an egg box, and its purpose was to help with memorizing the names of the colours of the rainbow. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. It interested me, because in school we were learning about Sir Isaac Newton and his prism experiment with light. The fact that all objects absorb some light and the colours I see are actually the reflected light, captured by the light receptors in my retinas, fed to my brain with the optic nerves and decoded in my brain into colour, intrigued me.
Since then I had discovered that colour has a life of its own. Colour is the difference between dawn, midday, and sunset. It is paint on a brush, and pixels on screen. And it becomes a dance partner to any artist who cherish and respect the vast treasures it offers.

Colour is an eager partner, who will, when treated with patience and understanding and after hours of practice, bring fluidity and synergy to the dance. Oh, what a soul enriching experience!    
Would you like to dance with colour, too?  Then follow me as I introduce you to a few of the intricacies of colour’s multi-faceted character.

The colour wheel

My highschool art teacher first introduced me to the basic colour wheel. I learned about primary colours (red, yellow, blue), secondary colours (orange, green, purple), and tertiary colours (red-orange, yellow-orange, blue-green, yellow-green, red-purple, blue-purple). Also that objects with warm colours (on the red side of the colour wheel) appear closer, while objects with cool colours (on the blue side of the colour wheel), appear further away.

But it was during my first year of tertiary study that I explored the colour wheel, in depth, and truly fell in love with it.

I was an artist with less than a budget, and knowing which colours to mix to get the colours I needed, helped a ton. I learned that I could mix tints of colours by adding white, shades of the same colour by adding black. Also that colours on opposite sides of the colour wheel (complementary colours) contrast one another, and colours next to each other on the colour wheel (analogous colours) blend together.

Just when I finally gotten the hang of mixing my Gouache (opaque watercolour) so that it was the perfect consistency and did not crack or leave watermarks on the fashion board, mastered the technique of outlining objects with a ruling pen and filling it in with a detail brush, and learned to apply Letraset so that type appeared printed, it was time to learn about using colour in a whole new way.

Colour for computer graphics

How different designing was on the computer! Inside the graphic design software (then Corel Draw 4, or was it 6?) I could click the ‘new file’ button to start with a blank page, and then, with a few more clicks select a tool and set its options. A preset colour palette was docked to the right of the screen, from which I could just pick whatever colour I desired. No more mixing paints.

Only when I started my own design studio, I stumbled upon the technical aspects concerning colour choice for computer graphics. It took a couple of expensive mistakes before I realized ‘what you see is not what you get’.  Time after time the colours I have selected for certain projects came out completely different when printed. I had to find a solution around my problem!

Enters the CMYK colour model

Within my computer graphics software, I discovered colour models. There were a handful.  I learned that the CMYK colour model is best to use for printing, and as most my work would be litho printed, I studied this colour model.

CMYK stands for the four process inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) used to produce the full range of 16 000 print colours. It is an subtractive colour model, because the pigments in the inks used absorb certain parts of white light (subtracts it) and what is seen is the remainder of the light that is reflected back to the viewer.

I saved up and purchased a CMYK Digital Colour Scale book. R2000 at the time, it nearly had me bankrupt, but it was a worthwhile investment. Finally I could at least get a reasonable idea of what the colours I chose would truly print like.

However, by then I knew the printed material would never be exactly the same as my colour chart. Because the final printed colour would be affected by how the process inks used were produced, the colour of the paper (white paper can have a slightly yellow, or more blue tinge), factors within the printing process, and then also the light by which the printed sheet is viewed. Still, having an actual printed CMYK colour chart made the world of a difference to my design experience, and, to my relief those expensive mistakes came to an end.

And then, the RGB colour model

A couple of years further down the line, I started doing some work for a web design company. It was time I became familiar with the RGB colour model.

RGB stands for the three primary colours (red, green and blue) that white light consists of. This colour model is used for any colours displayed on computer monitors, televisions, or any devise that uses light to transmit colours, and can technically produce round 16 million colours. It is an additive colour model, because red, green and blue light are combined (added together) in various strengths and then transmitted towards the viewer.

When I started out designing for the web, I thought the process much less complicated than to design for print. Surely the colours, as I saw them on my monitor, were exactly how they would appear to others, on their devices? Wrong! I discovered that web design colours could appear different depending on various factors like the type of monitor, the age of the monitor, graphics card, and screen settings. So, even for web design, colour choice and use were complex, although different to the complexities of colour for print.

Important to remember about colour

Take note: what you see is not what you get. Not in print or design. But there are methods to implement in your design process that will give you at least a close idea of what your chosen colours will print like, or how they will appear on screen.

1) Choose colours from the correct colour model for the application

Colours within the RGB colour model is more vivid than CMYK colours, and some RGB colours can not be produced in print, at all. So it is extremely important to choose colours from the correct colour model, which suits the end application of your designs. When your designs utilize the correct colour model from the start, proofs will appear as close as possible to the true end colour, and less colour discrepancies can occur as a result of automatic colour conversion that happens when artwork is prepared for print or exported for the web.

2) Colour charts

Use a suitable, standardized colour chart as guidance when designing for print. Use a colour chart printed on coated paper if your design will be printed on coated paper. Colours appear different on different types of paper. On coated paper, colours appear brighter, because the ink stays on the surface of the paper. Uncoated paper, on the other hand, makes colours appear darker, as the ink is absorbed into the paper.

3) Graphics software colour management

Study and set up the colour management options in your design software, for greater colour accuracy, and better consistency in how colours appear on your monitor, the proofs you print, and the final printed materials.

4) Calibration

Calibrate your monitor, and your office printer to ensure colours are displayed or printed according to industry standards.

5) Factors that influence colour in the printing process

    • Input colour
    • Method of preparing final print file PDF
    (Different types of PDF files may vary in colour)
    • Type of paper used
    • Inks used
    • Printing process
    (Colour will vary between litho and digital printing)
    • Finishes
    (Gloss UV varnish will make colours appear darker. Matt laminate will make colours appear slightly dull)

Lastly, lean into the necessary learning, experiment, and practice. Enjoy the process - enjoy your own dance with colour!