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What is Color Theory?

what is color theory
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We all know the basics of color, primary colors, and secondary colors, but there’s more to colors than meets the eye.

You can think of color theory as the language of color. It helps us communicate color so that we can create consistent, quality color and images. You see, everyone’s eyes are different, so we all see color slightly differently. That’s why it’s important to have a universal color language.

How do we see color?

Understanding just a few of the key terms in color theory will help you understand how printing color works. Let’s start with how we experience color. Color is created by three factors: light, an object and our eyes.

Light produces wavelengths that bounce off an object. Some wavelengths get absorbed by the object while others bounce off of it to reach our eyes. Those wavelengths that reach our eyes are how we perceive color. Now let’s dig into some color terminology so we can understand color better.

What is a color hue?

Let’s start with hue. This is color in its purest form without shades or tints. You might also see the word “hue” used to refer to specific colors.

What is color saturation?

Color saturation is the intensity or the purity of a color. Just like the name implies, in printing, saturation refers to the amount of ink used. The more ink, the more intense the color will be.

What is the whiteness scale in printing?

Think of the whiteness scale like black and white shades. The whiteness scale is used in printing to adjust how light or dark a color will be.

What is color space?

You can think of color space as all the colors available to you in a specific color toolbox. There just happen to be multiple toolboxes, each designed for specific needs. RGB (Red, Green, Blue) and CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key aka Black) are two well-known color spaces. But did you know there’s another color space? CIE is the color space that human eyes can perceive.

These three color spaces have significant overlap but there are some colors in one that are not in the other. RGB uses light to produce colors that appear on digital device screens. CMYK on the other hand uses ink instead of light to produce colors, which is why you’ll see this color space used by printers.

What is a color gamut?

You may notice this scale for electronic devices. Color gamut can refer to the number of colors a device can display or the range of colors you can make with the original colors you have available to you. Imagine you have a paint palette in front of you with red and blue paint. The color gamut would be all the colors you could create by mixing these two colors in different ratios and alone. Some colors are out of range of RGB or CMYK. When that happens they’re called “Out of Gamut,” just like if you were trying to make yellow from your red and blue paint palette.

How do printers use CMYK to print color?

We know CMYK uses ink to create color for printing things like cool stickers and labels, but have you ever wondered how this works? Creating beautiful, crisp images that look just like the original image requires a very specific way of printing. Extra tiny dots of ink are used to create colors and images. When ink overlaps, it creates darker colors.

Just like a TV screen that uses tiny dots to create an image on the screen, similarly, those beautifully printed stickers you see are actually made up of millions of very tiny dots of color. Our eyes don’t perceive the dots however, we see the colors come together to create just the right image.