Monday, March 21, 2005

World Turned Upside Down; Still Works Same Way

I made a list of the dyes I'd need to make all my wonderful scarf ideas. Then I went onto Dharma Trading's website and added up the prices of all these dyes. It came to upwards of $100. That was when I decided I'd need to learn how to mix my own color blends.

Dyes, as it turns out, mix according to the subtractive theory of color mixing. The primary colors of dye are cyan, magenta, and yellow. This is very different from what we are taught as kids, which is that red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors, or from what we know from our experiences with TV, which is that red, green and blue are primaries.

When I was a kid I just ate up the RYB color theory. I loved it. I could mix yellow and blue clay and get green. I could mix yellow and blue paint and get green too. I could even get various shades of green depending on the proportions of the mix. So when I went to the science museum and they assured me that green was a primary color and I could mix it with red to get yellow, I just kind of blinked at them. Green and red makes brown, not yellow. Green and red are opposites on the color wheel. Everybody who's worked with poster paints knows this. Even though I saw the green and red light mix to make yellow, I wrote it off as a matter of personal opinion. Maybe green and red makes yellow-- for you. For me it makes brown. Then I sectioned it off in my mind as something that didn't apply to me. OK, maybe red light and green light makes yellow light. But I don't paint with light, now, do I? So I don't have to think about it.

I'm now having to defeat my natural defense mechanisms against experiences that don't mesh with my ideas in order to learn the CMY (cyan-magenta-yellow) color mixing system. As anyone who has had to defeat these knows, it is extremely difficult. We posit systems of how the world works as a necessary lubricant to our everyday lives. We want the world to work in an orderly fashion. Once we've decided which schema the world follows, we reject utterly all the other schemas. And yet, we notice that there are people out there who accept other schemas. We suppose they must be ignorant, immature, or simply misguided, because they obviously don't understand how things work and they are just clutching to their schema out of habit. Of course, that doesn't apply to our schema-- we cling to it not because of habit, but because it's true and it's the way the world works. We've proved it with our own experience. Or at least it feels like we've proved it with our own experience, when in fact it's the other way around-- we've proved our own experience with our theory.

But reality doesn't work the way we want it to work just because we want it to. If we could think the world into submission and make it do our bidding, the earth would have had to shift geometries over the centuries as it vacillated between round and flat. Color doesn't change the way it works just because I accept a different set of primary colors. And yet, when I try to wrap my mind around the CMY system, it seems as if the world has turned upside down. Magenta and yellow make red. If you mix in cyan, which to my eyes is a kind of blue, you should get purple, but instead you get black. It makes some sort of sense to me, but in a warped, mind-blowing way that just feels wrong, like putting a left shoe on a right foot. I can memorize the color combinations and recite them, but they just don't make any sense when I try to think about them. It is the same dissonance that Newtonian physics saw in Einstein or that the mathematical community felt with Godel's Incompleteness Theorem. Everything you know is wrong, but nothing has changed.

But I also know that CMY theory is just a theory-- it is not an infallible system that can produce any color in the world or adequately explain which dyes will mix to produce what is perceived as red. Ultimately, the struggle to accept an alien idea is the first step in the struggle to accept that the world doesn't follow our rules, no matter which way we frame it. The world can turn entirely upside down-- but it still works the same way it always has.