Why Cyan Matters

Mouse goes exploring The first color my daughter learned was cyan. For awhile, she named every color cyan but now she spots the color where ever we go and delights in showing daddy his favorite color. I am pretty proud of that little color theorist. In spite of what we learned in early art classes, blue and red are not primary colors for pigments. The real pigment primaries are cyan, magenta, and yellow. If you have not already done so, read the post Reinventing the Wheel: Why Red is not a Primary Color. Otherwise, none of this will make sense.

It is important not just to use cyan and magenta when mixing colors but to actively look for them in your environment and use the terms to describe what you see. We tend to use the terms red, blue, and green to describe huge chunks of the color wheel without differentiating important changes. It turns out that the words we use to describe colors help us to see them in our environment. If you do not have a word for blue, you may not be able to identify blue as a distinct category even though though you have the visual apparatus to see it. ((Radiolab: Why isn’t the sky blue?)) ((Roberson, Debi, Davidoff, Jules B., Davies, Ian R. L. and Shapiro, Laura R.. 2005. Color categories: Evidence for the cultural relativity hypothesis. Cognitive Psychology, 50(4), pp. 378-411. ISSN 00100285)) ((No one could see the color blue until modern times by Kevin Loria, Business Insider Febuary 27, 2015)) See this short video from the BBC about the connection between language and color.

pencil color wheel labledMany art students have been trained to mix colors using Blue, Yellow and Red . Because it is impossible to mix cyan or magenta with this system, many students conflate cyan and blue, and magenta and red. Our lack of familiarity with these colors changes our ability to see them in nature. Thus we describe the breast of a mountain bluebird as light blue instead of cyan and then dip our brush into the wrong paint.

Simply adding the terms cyan and magenta into your vocabulary makes a big difference. The more you look for these colors the more you will see them. This also expands our range of color categories, giving us two useful terms between the primary colors yellow and magenta (orange and red), and two terms between magenta and cyan (violet, and blue). What we need to do next is to accept two terms to break up “green” so we can better discriminate the colors of foliage.

9 thoughts on “Why Cyan Matters

  1. Carolyn says:

    “What we need to do next is to accept two terms to break up “green” so we can better discriminate the colors of foliage.”

    I am intrigued by this idea! I’ve done some reading before on color and language, and it’s fascinating stuff. Do you have a term (or terms) that you already use to differentiate greens? It was something I noticed a need for myself when I realized I was consistently using different pigments for specific trees- pines, firs etc. are a “bluer” shade, while deciduous trees are a yellower shade.

    • Hi Carolyn, Still looking for the right green terms. I would like to avoid “blue green” because blue is both cyan and magenta. “Cyan green” sounds goofy. Yellow green could work for the other end of the green range but I would rather not use a compound term.

  2. I love the story about your little girl!

    Now if I could just mix an orange that replaces cadmium!

    What do you use from available pigments, John? I usually go with Quinacridone Red or Rose, Phthalo Blue, and a yellow, most often Hansa.

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