07 October 2021
Color Subtraction is about the relationships of colors to each other, and how they influence each other. Even your favorite color is influenced by its relationship to other colors nearby.
We’re not usually aware of color subtraction, it’s just something our eyes and brains do. We’re hardwired for it. In fact, we humans can’t really even see one, and only one, color. More on this in another blog post.
There is a long list of color attributes at play with the mechanics of color subtraction, but for this moment we need only look at hue, saturation and volume.
Let us venture into the RYB (red-yellow-blue) color model we use for art and paints. Remember the ol’ color wheel? Yikes! Just kidding, it’s not scary.
We see Color Subtraction at work in the image above with a small patch of color (we’ll call it aqua) in a field of a deep "pure" blue, and next to it the same aqua color inside a color field of a yellow.
Do you see it? You can enhance the effect by trying to focus on both aqua patches at once. The aqua inside the yellow field looks a little more blue and slightly darker than the aqua inside the darker blue field. Whaaaa?
The patch in the center of both color fields is in fact exactly the same aqua.
To break down the thing, let’s do some ‘mind-mixing’ of the three color blocks involved here. What we’re looking for is the location of each of our three color patches on the color wheel, so that we can identify the color mix amounts of each.
In our example above, the aqua (or blue-green or whatever you want to call it), lives part-way between blue and green. Green is a Secondary color mix of yellow + blue. So the aqua is really a primary blue that contains some yellow, but lives closer to blue.
With me so far?
The small aqua patch is surrounded by a large field of yellow. The yellow field is large enough to be dominant. Dominant colors pull their own color from colors in relative proximity. They subtract themselves from other colors nearby. So the big yellow field is sucking its own yellow self from the aqua, leaving more blue in the aqua.
Give yourself a minute here. Breathe. It will come.
On the blue field, the same exact aqua color appears slightly more yellow-green. Can you work it out?
If you figured out that the dominant blue field is pulling the blue out of the aqua --> leaving more yellow in the aqua --> which mixes with the aqua's blue to make it appear greener, you’re right! Congratulations! You’ve just learned some deep color theory.
This analysis can be a tricky mind-warp, especially when we’re trying to figure out what color to put on a brush or to mix on the palette and put down in the painting in the heat of the moment, or trying to solve for why the composition just isn’t working.
Exercises To Help You Push and Pull Colors, using Color Subtraction
It gets easier with practice. You won't always have to think it through. The understanding eventually goes into your muscle cell memory somewhere, and reaching for a color solution becomes intuitive.
Use your color practice tools like practicing scales and chords and patterns, if you play music. It’s not music yet, but the practice gives us building blocks and puts the music in our fingers.
I promise you, once gained, this color tool will strengthen your color decisions, and will charge up your color superpower!
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