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Color fundamentals

Dr. Huidae Cho
Institute for Environmental and Spatial Analysis
University of North Georgia

1   Color spectrum

In 1666, Sir Isaac Newton discovered that a beam of sunlight consists of continuous spectrum of colors from violet to red.


Wavelength from 380 nm to 780 nm


2   Principal sensing categories in the human eye

  • Red: About 65% of cones in the human eye are sensitive to red light.
  • Green: 33% are sensitive to green light.
  • Blue: 2% are sensitive to blue light, but most sensitive.

3   Primary and secondary colors of light

The primary colors of light are defined following these characteristics of the human eye:

  • Red (R) produces red light.
  • Green (G) produces green light.
  • Blue (B) produces blue light.

The secondary colors of light can be produced by adding the primary colors:

  • Magenta: R + B
  • Cyan: G + B
  • Yellow: R + G

R + G + B produces white.

Light sources use this “additive” color system.

4   Primary and secondary colors of pigments

The primary colors of pigments are

  • Cyan (C) absorbs red light, and reflects green and blue lights.
  • Magenta (M) absorbs green light, and reflects red and blue lights.
  • Yellow (Y) absorbs blue light, and reflects red and green lights.

The secondary colors of pigments can be produced by subtracting the primary colors:

  • Red: M (absorbs green) + Y (absorbs blue)
  • Green: C (absorbs red) + Y (absorbs blue)
  • Blue: M (absorbs green) + C (absorbs red)

C + M + Y produces black.

Reflective colors (e.g., paints) use this “subtractive” color system.

5   Hue, saturation, and brightness

Hue is the dominant color perceived by the human eye.

Saturation refers to the relative purity of a hue or how much the hue is diluted by white light. Pure colors are fully saturated (red vs. pink).

Brightness is the chromatic notion of intensity.

6   Chromaticity and tristimulus

Chromaticity refers to the quality of color independent of brightness. That is, hue and saturation considered together in chromaticity.

A color can be described by its chromaticity and brightness.

The amounts of red, green, and blue to reproduce any color are referred to as the tristimulus.

7   Commission Internationale de l’Eclairage (CIE) standards

In the 1920s, W. David Wright and John Guild’s experiments

  • CIE 1931 standard colorimetric observer
    • 2° field of view
    • Still widely used
  • CIE 1964 standard colorimetric observer
    • 10° field of view

8   CIE 1931 RGB color space

Additive color space based on the CIE 1931 RGB color model defined by the red, green, and blue additive primaries.

8.1   CIE 1931 $\overline{rgb}$ color-matching functions



Data from the experiments

These wavelengths were chosen because they were easily reproducible using a mercury vapor discharge at that time:

  • Red: 700 nm; Difficult to reproduce, but it was chosen because the perception of color is rather unchanging at this wavelength and insensitive to small errors.
  • Green: 546.1 nm
  • Blue: 435.8 nm

Notice negative $\bar{r}$ and very slightly negative $\bar{g}$ and $\bar{b}$. Split-screen two halves of a colored disk:

  • Left half: Reference color at each wavelength
  • Right half: RGB-adjustable using monochromatic primaries

In some cases, the left half had to be adjusted to match the two halves.

8.2   CIE 1931 rgb chromaticity coordinates



Rescale $\bar{r}$, $\bar{g}$, and $\bar{b}$ for the same wavelength: \begin{align*} r(\lambda)&=\frac{\bar{r}(\lambda)}{\bar{r}(\lambda)+\bar{g}(\lambda)+\bar{b}(\lambda)},\\ g(\lambda)&=\frac{\bar{g}(\lambda)}{\bar{r}(\lambda)+\bar{g}(\lambda)+\bar{b}(\lambda)},\text{ and}\\ b(\lambda)&=\frac{\bar{b}(\lambda)}{\bar{r}(\lambda)+\bar{g}(\lambda)+\bar{b}(\lambda)}.\\ \end{align*}

9   CIE 1931 XYZ color space

Linearly transformed CIE 1931 RGB color space

  • Standardized general color space that can define any visible color.
  • Color-matching functions would be positive.
  • $\bar{y}(\lambda)$ would be the same as the photopic luminosity function, which describes the variation of perceived brightness or the sensitivity of the human eye to the brightness.
  • The white point would be located at $x=y=z=\frac{1}{3}$.

9.1   CIE 1931 $\overline{xyz}$ color-matching functions



Derived by applying the following change-of-basis transform to the $\overline{rgb}$ color-matching functions: \[T= \begin{bmatrix} 2.76888& 1.75175& 1.13016\\ 1& 4.5907& 0.0601\\ 0& 0.05651& 5.59427 \end{bmatrix}\]

9.2   CIE 1931 xyz chromaticity coordinates



Rescale $\bar{x}$, $\bar{y}$, and $\bar{z}$ for the same wavelength: \begin{align*} x(\lambda)&=\frac{\bar{x}(\lambda)}{\bar{x}(\lambda)+\bar{y}(\lambda)+\bar{z}(\lambda)},\\ y(\lambda)&=\frac{\bar{y}(\lambda)}{\bar{x}(\lambda)+\bar{y}(\lambda)+\bar{z}(\lambda)},\text{ and}\\ z(\lambda)&=\frac{\bar{z}(\lambda)}{\bar{x}(\lambda)+\bar{y}(\lambda)+\bar{z}(\lambda)}.\\ \end{align*}

10   CIE 1931 chromaticity diagram


  • A complete subset of colors is referred to as a gamut.
  • The CIE 1931 chromaticity diagram shows the gamut of human vision.
  • The white point is located at $(\frac{1}{3}, \frac{1}{3})$.
  • Pure or fully saturated colors are along the boundary.
  • Unsaturated colors are inside the boundary.
  • Any colors lying on a straight line between two colors can be formed by mixing the two colors.
  • Any colors within a triangle by three colors can be formed by mixing the three colors.

11   sRGB gamut


  • sRGB is the standard RGB.
  • As shown in this figure, no colors outside the triangle can be formed.

12   Homework 8

Derive the formula for an arbitrary color $c$ that lies on a straight line between two colors $c_1$ and $c_2$ in the CIE 1931 chromaticity diagram. The final formula should be expressed in terms of $c_1$ and $c_2$. Please turn in your full work on paper.


  • Any color lying on a straight line between other two colors can be formed by linearly mixing these colors.
  • You may use the distance measures $|cc_1|$, $|cc_2|$, and $|c_1c_2|$.
  • Remember that the relationship between colors on a straight line in the chromaticity diagram is linear.