Color theory was originally formulated in terms of three "primary" or "primitive" colors—red, yellow and blue (RYB)—because these colors were believed capable of mixing all other colors. This color mixing behavior had long been known to printers, dyers and painters, but these trades preferred pure pigments to primary color mixtures, because the mixtures were too dull (unsaturated).
The RYB primary colors became the foundation of 18th century theories of color vision, as the fundamental sensory qualities that are blended in the perception of all physical colors and equally in the physical mixture of pigments or dyes. These theories were enhanced by 18th-century investigations of a variety of purely psychological color effects, in particular the contrast between "complementary" or opposing hues that are produced by color afterimages and in the contrasting shadows in colored light. These ideas and many personal color observations were summarized in two founding documents in color theory: the Theory of Colours (1810) by the German poet and government minister Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and The Law of Simultaneous Color Contrast (1839) by the French industrial chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul.
Subsequently, German and English scientists established in the late 19th century that color perception is best described in terms of a different set of primary colors—red, green and blue violet (RGB)—modeled through the additive mixture of three monochromatic lights. Subsequent research anchored these primary colors in the differing responses to light by three types of color receptors or cones in the retina (trichromacy). On this basis the quantitative description of color mixture or colorimetry developed in the early 20th century, along with a series of increasingly sophisticated models of color space and color perception, such as the opponent process theory.
Across the same period, industrial chemistry radically expanded the color range of lightfast synthetic pigments, allowing for substantially improved saturation in color mixtures of dyes, paints and inks. It also created the dyes and chemical processes necessary for color photography. As a result three-color printing became aesthetically and economically feasible in mass printed media, and the artists' color theory was adapted to primary colors most effective in inks or photographic dyes: cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY). (In printing, dark colors are supplemented by a black ink, known as the CMYK system; in both printing and photography, white is provided by the color of the paper.) These CMY primary colors were reconciled with the RGB primaries, and subtractive color mixing with additive color mixing, by defining the CMY primaries as substances that absorbed only one of the retinal primary colors: cyan absorbs only red (−R+G+B), magenta only green (+R−G+B), and yellow only blue violet (+R+G−B). It is important to add that the CMYK, or process, color printing is meant as an economical way of producing a wide range of colors for printing, but is deficient in reproducing certain colors, notably orange and slightly deficient in reproducing purples. A wider range of color can be obtained with the addition of other colors to the printing process, such as in Pantone's Hexachrome printing ink system (six colors), among others.
For much of the 19th century artistic color theory either lagged behind scientific understanding or was augmented by science books written for the lay public, in particular Modern Chromatics (1879) by the American physicist Ogden Rood, and early color atlases developed by Albert Munsell (Munsell Book of Color, 1915, see Munsell color system) and Wilhelm Ostwald (Color Atlas, 1919). Major advances were made in the early 20th century by artists teaching or associated with the German Bauhaus, in particular Wassily Kandinsky, Johannes Itten, Faber Birren and Josef Albers, whose writings mix speculation with an empirical or demonstration-based study of color design principles.
Contemporary color theory must address the expanded range of media created by digital media and print management systems, which substantially expand the range of imaging systems and viewing contexts in which color can be used. These applications are areas of intensive research, much of it proprietary; artistic color theory has little to say about these complex new opportunities.