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The Complementary Colors of Yellow

Hunt defines that "two colors are complementary when it is possible to reproduce the tristimulus values of a specified achromatic stimulus by an additive mixture of these two stimuli." That is, when two colored lights can be mixed to match a specified white (achromatic, non-colored) light, the colors of those two lights are complementary. This definition, however, does not constrain what version of white will be specified. In the nineteenth century, the scientists Grassmann and Helmholtz did experiments in which they concluded that finding a good complement for spectral yellow was difficult, but that the result was indigo, that is, a wavelength that today's color scientists would call violet. Helmholtz says "Yellow and indigo blue" are complements. Grassman reconstructs Newton's category boundaries in terms of wavelengths and says "This indigo therefore falls within the limits of color between which, according to Helmholtz, the complementary colors of yellow lie."

Newton's own color circle has yellow directly opposite the boundary between indigo and violet. These results, that the complement of yellow is a wavelength shorter than 450 nm, are derivable from the modern CIE 1931 system of colorimetry if it is assumed that the yellow is about 580 nm or shorter wavelength, and the specified white is the color of a blackbody radiator of temperature 2800 K or lower (that is, the white of an ordinary incandescent light bulb). More typically, with a daylight-colored or around 5000 to 6000 K white, the complement of yellow will be in the blue wavelength range, which is the standard modern answer for the complement of yellow.

  • Complements of yellow have a dominant wavelength in the range 380 to 480 nm. The green lines show several possible pairs of complementary colors with respect to different blackbody color temperature neutrals, illustrated by the "Planckian locus".

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