My Insights on Color Theory and Why CMYK Rules my Universe.

CMYK rules my art world. And, it should rule yours. I have known about and used both RGB (red, green, blue) and CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, K (I’ll explain the K later) for years. But I really didn’t understand them until now. I thought CMYK just was something printers had to do because of the inks they used.. and I was kinda right, but mostly wrong. It had to so with the inks, the paper, the coatings, the …well.. the everything.

I’m taking a class is all about CMYK and why it is better than RGB for my art. RGB is what we learned in elementary school only because it is easy to show. RGB is for transmitted light. RGB is about adding colored light together to create. Starting from nothing, the absence of light, adding light of specific colors until you reach your desired outcome.

CMYK is about starting with white light and subtracting colors until you reach your desired outcome. CMYK is for light-absorbing color processes. Quilts, fabric, paints and inks are ‘colored’ by all reflected light. But it is light passed through light-absorbing pigments in the form of ink, paint, dyes, and more. A CMYK color wheel will really help you get the best results when using these mediums. C-Cyan, M-Magenta, Y-Yellow, K- key (the key or color plate is used in printing to determine the lightness or darkness of the CMY). They don’t mention the K part in the class specifically, but they do talk a lot about it. Every time they are talking about tint, shade, or tone.. they are teaching us about the K part of CMYK color theory.

We were all short-changed in K-12 when it came to color theory unless you had a really rocking art teacher who had lots of time. If you took drama classes you necessarily taught RGB. Theater uses light and lots of it. Theater uses light passed through gels (transparent colored films) to “color” the light. RGB is all about transmitted light. It’s really easy to show RGB color theory and limited budgets meant most schools taught RGB theory. A few colored gels, a source of white light and, wa-la, you had an easy quick demonstration on RGM. Lightness or darkness in RGB is controlled by the amount of light you allow to shine through. 

CMYK. Now that is the true beast we need to learn for doing art (that isn’t working directly with manipulating the light itself). In CMYK, the lightness or darkness is a result of two things. 1) the pigment itself and how a human perceives it. and 2) the amount of white or black mixed into the pigment). Number 2 is a very different animal than just dimming or turning up the electric current in a light. Human perception is obvious for those of us who can see. For example, Yellow is ‘lighter’ in perception than Purple. 

In CMYK color theory, color passes through the pigments/dye/ink on the paper (they absorb some color) then reflects off of whatever surface is under the pigments and back through the light absorbing pigments before going to your eye. So you can think of CMYK as subtractive. Color is subtracted (absorbed) or removed from the light bouncing off the background behind the pigments laying on the surface. It is also affected by the background surface. And, it is subtracted (absorbed) again when the light passes back up through the pigment back to your eye. The background plays a huge role in all this. Traditionally the background is white, white canvas, white fabric, white paper, white gesso, etc.

In CMYK you can create black by mixing all the colors together. In practice, this actually end up looking like a dark mess. That is because it is really hard in nature to find 100% pure colors, or to even create them out of things we find on earth. Everything we create is slightly tainted. So actually finding three pure CMY colors and mixing them exactly has astronomical odds against it happening. Also laying on enough pigment to absorb all the light is a requirement. This could end up looking like a thick scab. This can get really nasty if you ask me. So printers and artists for thousands of years have “cheated” by making black pigments. Actually they are just made of things that are really dense and absorb a lot of light like coal. Anyway, using black pigment with the three subtractive primary colors allows wonderful things to happen. It’s why your inkjet printer today uses at least four inks, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black is used for the key). Black is used when the muddier combo color of the CMY isn’t desired. To get a really rich black, printers will often mix a layer of CMY with a layer of black over it. Newer printers often have a “Photo” black cartridge. This is actually CMY and Black inks together. No biggie.. it just works.

To get lighter ‘colors, you just use less pigment so less absorption of light occurs. This isn’t always practical either. Our eyes are super sensitive detectors. We would have to grind down the pigments to itsy bitsy teensy weensy bits and sometimes we can’t grind them down enough. We’d also have to evenly and at regular spacing spread the pigments out at just the right rate to get the color we want. All that is terribly hard. So again, artists have been “cheating” for years by using “white” pigments as a carrier substance to thin out the colors and spread them out. No biggie.. it just works.

Having the K factor is the Key… it allows us to take a pure color and thin it down to make lighter colors or thicken it up (and even add black) to make dark colors. 

You can even include the K factor as your substrate, using a grey or black back ground will allow you to achieve changes without having to even alter your pure color pigments.

All that is nice.. but how does it apply to quilts..

As well as making different color choices now, I think about the K factor (lightness/darkness/value) as much as the color itself. I realized I used to pick all the colors but they usually had the same K factor. So if I made a green and blue quilt (analogous color scheme) I had all light, or all medium colors in terms of  how light/dark they were. Because I am studying CMYK, I think about the K factor (lots of pros call it value or include it in their value definition). So now if I were to do an analogous color scheme quilt, I also make sure I have some light, some dark, some medium mixed up in the actual colors themselves.

Does it work? All I can say is that it does! Try it. If you are used to using a color wheel as a guide to help you choose fabrics for a quilt… Go pick fabrics using a CMYK color wheel, also known as an Ive’s Color Wheel, and watch your once drab color picking skills suddenly become professional. Remember the K factor part of CMYK and You’ll be quilting with the stars.. at least with your color choices. 

I know people are saying things about my art that they didn’t before.. they are saying things like wow, I love those colors, I didn’t think of putting those together but it really does work well, and more. They never commented about my choices before I made the switch. They do now. And more importantly I think so to. 

Author: FreeFormQuilts

South Texas chick who drinks margaritas, makes not boring socks, quilts, leaves her christmas lights up till March (inside the house), and has an opinion on everything. Has a not-so-secret occupation and she also married into one of the coolest ranching families ever.

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