If CMY are the true primary colors of subtractive color theory, are the complementary pairs yellow and blue, cyan and red, and magenta and green the "true" opposite color pairs?

For example, a makeup artist who wants to color correct blue under eye circles usually uses orange makeup. Would she have better results if she used yellow makeup?

Alternatively, is the CMY(K) model only more accurate for printers printing on white paper? Maybe the way we actually perceive color is less scientific and more inline with the traditional RYB model?


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Subtractive color theory is useful, but it is not the end all story. In theory, subtractive colors can be used to describe a remarkably wide gamut of perceived colors. However, the actual color spectrum is continuous. Real lighting situations can lead to situations where two colors which matched under one lighting can be visibly different under others. This is one of the reasons why spot colors exist: they are a single understood pigment, rather than just a "color."

Indeed, if you look at modern printing technology, many printing methods offer more than 4 colors. 6 or 8 color processes are common, offering room for a larger gamut of colors.

The color we perceive is always a function of the color of the lighting and the absorbtion spectrum of the object. Makeup artists know this, and have figured out the correct pigments to use to accomplish various goals. This is also why it is advised that people picking out colors for their house view the colors at several times of day, as the color of light shifts during the day and that can affect the balance of colors in surprising ways.

If you really want to get into what we actually perceive, it's worth looking into the sensitivity of our eye to color. It is also worth looking at some of the neurological models of color which we have developed, such as opponent process theory.

  • $\begingroup$ Can how well lit something is actually affect the hue we perceive? It thought that lighting would only affect perceived saturation and luminosity. In other words, it could look like a tone, tint, or shade, but I would think that the base hue would always seem the same. Therefore, the relative positions on the color wheel would not change. $\endgroup$
    – Shifra
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 15:45
  • $\begingroup$ I see that the colors in "opponent process" seem to lean more towards the CMY model than the RYB model of color. Yellow is the opposite of blue, and the "green" and "red" look more vibrant than traditional red and green (they look more like cyan and magenta). $\endgroup$
    – Shifra
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 15:52
  • $\begingroup$ @Shifra The lighting absolutely affects the hues we perceive. If you talk with someone in the printing business, correct lighting is essential. If you think about it from a physics perspective the spectrum of photons your eye receives is the product of how many photons of a given wavelength there are times the reflection ratio of the material for that wavelength. So at the physics level, the photons reaching the eye have a different spectra. The reason you don't typically notice this is neurological. Our brains "white balance." $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ In effect, they make educated guesses as to the lighting conditions of the object that they are looking at, and use that to back out the "true" color of the material ("true" being in scare quotes here because it's really just a good guess). We don't know why we evolved this capability, but one leading theory is that a hunter needs it. If a deer goes into the shadows, it immediately reflects more blue light and less yellow (because it is now lit by the blue sky but not the sun). If the brain stitches things together to make the color appear more continuous, that would aid a hunter. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 17:00
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    $\begingroup$ The most famous example of this is The Dress which is a picture of a dress which is unevenly lit, leading different people's minds to white-balance differently. It caused quite an uproar. A more extreme example of this is a cartoon of the dress from XKCD. I have put that image into a photo editor and confirmed that the left and right images of the dress have identical RGB values. But the change in color of the background causes your mind to white-balance them differently. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 17:02

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