Guest Blogger: Geoffrey Owen Miller, II

Let’s hear more from Geoffrey about his use of color!  Without further ado….

Last week, I mentioned a way to combine the RGB and CMYK color wheels.

color wheels-02This lovely wheel is often called the Yurmby wheel because it’s somewhat more pronounceable then YRMBCG(Y). The benefit of the Yurmby is that the primary of one system is the secondary of the other. With the RGB system,

Red light + Blue light = Magenta light.

Red and Blue are the “primaries,” meaning they are used to mix all other colors, like Magenta, and they can’t be mixed by other colors within that system. The CMYK system is different because pigments absorb light and so it is the reverse of the RGB system:

Cyan pigment + Yellow pigment = Green pigment.

This spatial relationship on the wheel is important as it is an oversimplified representation of an important aspect of our vision. Our eyes only have three types of color sensitive cells—typically called Red, Blue, and Green cone cells. Each cell is sensitive to a different size of wavelength of light:  Long, Medium, and Short. When all three frequencies of light are seen together, we see white light. But more significantly, when we see a combination of Medium (green) and Long (red) wavelengths, our brain gets the same signal as if we saw yellow light, which has a medium longish wavelength!

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Going back to the Color Relationships, the first, and easiest to see is a Triadic relationship. Here three colors are chosen at similar distances from each other on the color circle. If we choose Red, Green and Blue, then you should feel a sense of familiarity. When light of all three colors is brought together we have white. But what if we move the triangle, you may ask? Well, let’s try Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan. To shorten the number of words written, I am going to increasingly use more abbreviations. C + Y + M = Black, right? Well yes, if mixed as pigment on paper it becomes a dark gray, as Cyan absorbs Red, Yellow absorbs Blue, and Magenta absorbs Green. But as light, they mix to White.

Cyan light is made up of both Green light and Blue light as that is how you make Cyan light: C = G + B. If we go back to our original equation

C + Y + M

and simplify further, we get

(G + B) + (G + R) + (R + B), or 2R + 2G + 2B.

color wheels-04

We can remove the 2’s as they are not important (think stoichometry in chemistry!) and we are left with RGB, or white. Now let’s try moving half a step clockwise:

 Magenta-Blue + Cyan-Green + Yellow-Red,


M + B + C + G + Y + R,

which simplifies to

(R + B) + B + (B + G) + G + (G + R) + R, or 3R + 3G + 3B,

which once again is RGB!

color wheels-05

The point of these “color relations” is to simplify the number of colors in use. Any three equally spaced colors would mix to white. A complementary color pair is the fewest number of colors necessary to engage all three cone cells in the eye; for example,

R + C = R + (G + B)= White.

A split complement is in between a complement-pair and a triad, as shown in the second figure below.

color wheels-06

So for the watercolors I started this discussion about, I had found an old tube of flesh color that I had bought while in Taiwan. I was oddly attracted to this totally artificial-looking hue as a representative for human skin, and it also seemed like a good challenge to get it to work harmoniously in a painting. To understand it better, I first went about trying to remix that flesh color with my other single pigment paints. It turned out to be a mixture of red, yellow, and lots of white — basically a pastel orange. The complementary color of this is a Cyan-Blue color, which I chose to be the pigment Indigo. I added to this pallet Yellow Ochre, which is a reddish-yellow, and Venetian Red which is a yellowish-red, which when mixed make an orange, though much earthier than the orange in that tube of Barbie-like flesh tone.

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Once I had the four colors I felt best about (which also took into consideration other characteristics of a pigment, such as how grainy they are), the painting became a process where intuition, chance, luck, skill, and the weather all played equal parts in creating a work of historical record — never to be repeated equally again.

Disciplines of Geography 10.28.11
Disciplines of Geography 10.28.11

–Geoffrey Owen Miller

Thanks, Geoffrey!  I’d like to remark that I asked Geoffrey to elaborate on the statement “Once I had the four colors I felt best about….”  How did he know what colors were “best”?  Geoffrey commented that it was “like Tiger Woods describing what goes through his mind when he swings a golf club.”

As I thought about his comment, I appreciated it more and more.  A color wheel is a tool to help you organize thoughts about colors — but a color wheel cannot choose the colors for you.  This is where artistry comes in.  Using your tools as a guide, you navigate your way through the color spectrum until — based on years of practice and experience — you’ve “found it.”

But this is exactly what happens when creating digital art!  It is easy to find the complement of a color from the RGB values — just subtract each RGB value from 1.  Sometimes it’s just what you want, but sometimes you need to tweak it a little.  While there are simple arithmetic rules relating colors, they are not “absolute.”

So it all comes back to the question, “What is art?”  I won’t attempt to answer this question here, but only say that having tools and techniques (and code!) at your disposal will allow you to create images, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that these images will have artistic value.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my first guest blogger — I’ll occasionally invite other bloggers as well in the future.  I’m off to Finland for the Bridges 2016 conference tomorrow, so next week I’ll be talking about all the wonderful art I encounter there!


Guest Blogger: Geoffrey Owen Miller, I

Disciplines of Geography 11.5.11.jpg
Disciplines of Geography 11.5.11

Geoffrey was one of the two most influential artists who guided me along the path of creating digital art.  We worked at the same school a few years ago, and I sat in on many of his art classes.  Since the faculty often ate lunch together, we’d sit and have many casual chats about art and color.

What I always appreciate about Geoffery is that even though he’s not a mathematician, he is still able to understand and appreciate the mathematical aspects of what I create.  He isn’t intimidated by the mathematics, and I’m not intimidiated by his artisitic expertise.  He really helps me develop as an artist.

Geoffrey is passionate about the use of color, and thinks and writes extensively about the subject.  I’m also fascinated by color, so I thought I’d invite him to be a guest on my blog.  He had so many great things to say, though, that is soon became too much to say in one post.

So enjoy these few weeks, and learn something more about color!  If you like what you see and read, visit Geoffrey’s website at  Enough from me — we’ll let Geoffrey speak for himself….

Back in 2011, I started a series of watercolors that came to be called the Disciplines of Geography. I had just been in Europe and had spent a lot of time visiting the museums and thinking about history while walking amongst all those giant oil paintings. On my return, I was asked by a friend and talented poet to help create a cover for a book of her poems. I had been using the medium of watercolor to sketch during my travels and I decided to use it to make something more substantial and sustained. I found watercolor quite difficult compared to oil paint as every mark you make on the paper remains at some level visible. It forces you to accept mistakes while you do all you can to try and minimize them. But mostly I loved the color the transparent washes of color could create despite my perpetual uncertainty and constant mistakes.

Discipline of Geography  1.6.11
Disciplines of Geography 1.6.11

I determined to make my own version of a history painting with watercolor by focusing on the process of painting. I started thinking about how time and space were linked with the history of the European borders. To watch the ebb and flow of the borders of different countries and governments overlapping and being overlapped was similar to the way watercolor extends out from a pour of paint on wet paper. Each layer of color is effectively redrawing the boundaries, while simultaneously building a history where every subsequent state is influenced by the previous colors, values, and borders of those before them.

As these paintings are nonobjective abstractions, meaning I was not looking at anything specific to inform my color choices, I needed something to inform my decision making. Often abstractions come from found or referenced materials, like photos, or found objects, which can often help direct the choices of value, color, line, etc., that one is making. Why choose one blue instead of another? At some level we choose colors we like or look better to us, but I like working in or creating systems that push me outside of what I normally feel comfortable with. As these paintings existed in the realm of ideas and needed a similar structure to build upon, I really started looking into the color wheel as a tool to think about the relationships of the different colors. (This itself became a multi-year ongoing project.) Without going down that path too far, I wanted to share something I found interesting and helpful in the context of making these watercolors as well providing a greater understanding to how color relates in other contexts.

As a student I was shown, in conjunction with the color wheel, certain color relationships that were supposed to help us make harmonious color choices in our images. We were supposed to make color choices based off of the relationships of the colors’ locations on the color circle. Complementary colors were any two colors on opposite sides of the circle, split complements exchanged one of those two colors for the two colors on either side of it, triadic colors were three colors equally distanced from each other, and so on. But was yellow the complement of purple?  Or of blue?  Because artists use more than one color wheel, it depended on which color circle you decided to go with.

The Red Yellow Blue (RYB) primary color circle was most often used during my schooling. This was because those were the pigments we most often used, and in this case yellow did complement the mixture of red and blue, which was called purple. If you mixed all three you tended to get a dark color that, depending on your ratios, was a pretty decent neutral, which is really important in color mixing. Hardly anything in the world around us is a fully saturated color.

color wheels-01

However, with light it is very clear, and also demonstrable in your own home with flashlights and colored films, that blue is the complement of yellow. And when they mix they create a fairly neutral white. As color is essentially about light (and pigments are a complicated world in themselves) I decided to go with the Red Green Blue (RGB) color circle. As an added bonus, those clever artists and color scientists figured out that certain other pigments can work quite nicely in this structure. Cyan, Yellow, and Magenta are the colors that Red, Green, and Blue light make when mixed, while Red, Green, and Blue are made with Cyan, Yellow, and Magenta pigments. Learning that was incredibly satisfying.

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But since Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow pigments don’t actually create Black, Black is needed for the very darkest colors.  So this system is called the “CMYK” system, where “K” is used for Black so it’s not confused with Blue.

There’s a neat way these two systems can be combined, called the “Yurmby” wheel, which I used to create Disciplines of Geography.  That’s where we’ll start next week!