Go ahead and ask Google — the knower of all things — to name the primary colors. You'll get a straightforward answer that likely aligns with everything you learned as an elementary school coloring book expert. The primary colors are red, yellow and blue.
But as with most seemingly simple concepts, the answer is actually a whole lot more complex. And while Google isn't exactly lying to you, it doesn't exactly tell the whole story, either.
- What Are Primary Colors?
- Additive Color Mixing
- Subtractive Color Mixing
- The Distinction Between Additive and Subtractive ... And Why It's Wrong
- The Truth About Red and Blue
What Are Primary Colors?
Here's the deal about primary colors: The players depend on the game. In other words, if you're talking about painting, then yes: Red, yellow and blue are your primary colors. If you're talking about physics and light, though, your primary colors are red, green and blue.
So, what gives? The reason for the confusing contradiction is that there are two different color theories — for "material colors" like the ones used by painters and for colored light. These two theories are known as additive and subtractive color systems.
Stephen Westland, Professor of Colour Science at the University of Leeds in England breaks things down into simple terms (before getting into the confusing complexities), in an email. "We see because light enters our eyes," he says. "Light enters our eyes in two ways: (1) directly from a light source; and (2) reflected from an object. This leads to two types of colour mixing, additive and subtractive." [We have retained the British spelling of the word "colour" here.]
"Both systems are accomplishing one task," says Mark Fairchild, professor and director of the Program of Color Science/Munsell Color Science Laboratory at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. "That is to modulate the responses of the three types of cone photoreceptors in our eyes. Those are roughly sensitive to red, green and blue light. The additive primaries do this very directly by controlling the amounts of red, green and blue light that we see and therefore almost directly map to the visual responses. The subtractive primaries also modulate red, green and blue light, but a little less directly."
Let's get into those distinctions — but fair warning: everything you know about primary colors is about to change before your eyes.
Additive Color Mixing
Let's talk about the additive system first. When he was 23 years old, Isaac Newton made a revolutionary discovery: By using prisms and mirrors, he could combine the red, green and blue (RGB) regions of a reflected rainbow to create white light. Newton deemed those three colors the "primary" colors since they were the basic ingredients needed to create clear, white light.
"Additive colors are those which make more light when they are mixed together," says Richard Raiselis, Associate Professor of Art at Boston University School of Visual Arts. "A simple way to think about additive light is to imagine three flashlights projecting individual circles of light onto a wall. The shared intersection of two flashlight circles is brighter than either of the circles, and the third flashlight circle intersection will be brighter still. With each mix, we add lightness, therefore we call this kind of mixture additive light." If you imagine each flashlight is fitted with a transparent color filter — one red, one green and one blue — Raiselis says that's the key to understanding additive color mixing.
"When the blue flashlight circle intersects the green one, there is a lighter blue-green shape," he says. "It's cyan. The red and blue mix is lighter too, a beautiful magenta. And the red and green also make a lighter color — and a surprise to nearly everyone who sees it – yellow! So red, green and blue are additive primaries because they can make all other colors, even yellow. When mixed together, red, green and blue lights make white light. Your computer screen and TV work this way. And if you've been onstage, you might have looked up behind the curtain to see the red, green and blue lights that serve as theatre's additive primary colors."
"In simple terms, additive color mixing is where we have a device such as a TV or a smartphone screen that emits light," Westland says. "In most devices, three different colors of light (primaries) are emitted and as they are used they are added together." But the range — or gamut — of colors that can be produced from three additive primaries varies depending upon what the primaries are. Most sources will tell you red, green and blue are the additive primaries, as Newton originally proposed, but Westland says it's a lot more complicated than that.
"It is often mistakenly written that RGB are optimal because the visual system has receptors in the eye that respond optimally to red, green and blue light but this is a misconception," he says. "The long-wavelength sensitive cone, for example, has peak sensitivity in the yellow-green part of the spectrum, not the red part."
Subtractive Color Mixing
Enter subtractive color. "Subtractive colour mixing results when we mix together paints or inks," Westland says. "It relates to all of the colours we see of non-emissive objects, such as textiles, paints, plastics, inks, etc. "These materials are seen because they reflect the incident light that falls upon them. Take a piece of white paper; this paper reflects all of the wavelengths in the visible spectrum to a very high degree. Now add a yellow ink on top of the paper. The yellow ink absorbs the blue wavelengths, leaving the others — which are seen as yellow — to be reflected. So rather than being additive, in this case we start with white (all the wavelengths being reflected) and then start to subtract light at certain wavelengths as we add the primaries."
So the distinction in color systems really comes down to the chemical makeup of the objects involved and how they reflect light. Additive theory is based on objects that emit light, while subtractive deals with material objects like books and paintings. "Subtractive colors are those which reflect less light when they are mixed together," says Raiselis. "When artists' paints are mixed together, some light is absorbed, making colors that are darker and duller than the parent colors. Painters' subtractive primary colors are red, yellow and blue. These three hues are called primary because they cannot be made with mixtures of other pigments."
So, Crayola and Google aren't wrong — in the material world, red, blue and yellow are the primary colors that can be combined to create additional colors of the rainbow. But if you're talking about anything tech-related (as most of us are these days), remember that the primary colors for TVs, computer screens, mobile devices and more, all subscribe to Newton's light-emitting system, so their primary colors are red, green and blue. Kind of. Well, not really.
The Distinction Between Additive and Subtractive ... And Why It's Wrong
"It turns out that if we use three primaries, the best ones to use are cyan, magenta and yellow," Westland says. "Note that these are the primaries that have been identified by the large printing companies who will use CMY (and often black as well) in their commercial devices to make a large range of colors. The idea that the subtractive primaries are red, yellow and blue (RYB) is confusing and should not be taught. It would be wrong to think that cyan and magenta are just fancy names for blue and red."
It's shocking, but true: The names we've been using for our primary colors when it comes to coloring books and paint chips? Totally wrong. "The subtractive primaries are really cyan, magenta, and yellow," Fairchild says. "The names 'blue' for the 'cyan' and 'red' for the 'magenta' are typically misnomers. Other colors can be used as primaries, but they will not produce as wide a range of color mixtures."
The reason behind these inaccurate terms? Light. "The yellow primary controls the amount of blue light reaching our eyes," Fairchild says. "A small amount of yellow primary removes a small amount of blue light from the original white stimulus (e.g. white paper in printing or a white canvas), while a larger amount of yellow removes more blue light. The magenta primary controls the amount of green light and, finally, the cyan primary controls the amount of red light. The subtractive primaries do this by absorbing different amounts of red, green and blue, while the additive primaries simply emit different amounts. It's all about controlling the amounts of red, green and blue light."
Westland offers a scholastic example to illustrate the rampant misconception around primaries. "Imagine you are teaching colour science at school and you explain that the additive primaries are RGB and that the subtractive primaries are RYB," he says. "A particularly bright student asks you: 'why are two of the primaries the same in both systems (R and B) but the G in the additive system is replaced by the Y in the subtractive system?' This is a horrible question because it has no rational answer."
You have to love the candor. The reason for the lack of rationale is that, as we've discussed, red, yellow and blue aren't the real subtractive primaries at all — magenta, yellow, and cyan are. "It turns out that RYB is in fact a particularly poor choice of subtractive primaries," Westland says. "Many of the mixtures that are produced are dull and desaturated and consequently, the gamut of colours you can produce will be small. What you should teach is that there is a clear relationship between the additive and subtractive colour primaries. The optimal additive primaries are RGB. The optimal subtractive primaries are cyan (which is red absorbing), magenta (which is green absorbing), and yellow (which is blue absorbing). Now, there is no conflict between the two systems and, in fact, it can be seen that additive and subtractive primaries are almost mirror images of each other. The best subtractive primaries are CMY because the best additive primaries are RGB."
So, if cyan, magenta and yellow are the real deal primaries when it comes to tactile objects, why does just about everyone on the planet still think the honor belongs to red, blue and yellow? "Well, partly because they are incorrectly taught this from their first days at school," Westland says. "But also because it seems intuitive. It seems intuitive because people believe the following: 1) That it is possible to make all colours by mixing together three primaries, and 2) That the primaries are pure colours that cannot be made by mixing other colours."
So ... those beliefs are wrong?
The Truth About Red and Blue
Well, yes, according to Westland, the idea that three pure primaries can create al the colors in the world is totally false. "We cannot make all colours from three primaries no matter how carefully we choose the primaries," he says. "We cannot do it with additive colour mixing and we cannot do it with subtractive colour mixing. If we use three primaries, we can make all the hues, but we cannot make all the colours; we will always struggle to make really saturated (vivid) colours."
Here's the thing: even though we're taught to think of red and blue as "pure" colors, they're simply not. Here's how to prove that: open an art program on your computer and create a red patch on the screen. Then print the patch using a CMYK printer. "The printer will produce red by mixing the magenta and yellow inks that it has," Westland says. "Red can be made by mixing together magenta and yellow. If we use RYB or CMY — or, indeed, almost any other sensible set of three primaries, obviously not three reds! — then we can make all hues; however, we cannot make all the colors. But we will get the biggest gamut of colours using CMY and that is why we can say that CMY are the optimal subtractive primaries just as RGB are the optimal additive primaries."
And as far as blue goes, it's not as pure as you think either. "It looks pure because it absorbs strongly in two thirds of the spectrum," Westland says. "It absorbs in the green and red parts. Red absorbs in the blue and green parts. If we mix them together, between them they are absorbing everywhere! The resultant mixture, although it may be a purple colour, will be dull and dark. The absorption spectra of these colours are too broad. It is better to use cyan than blue because cyan absorbs mainly in the red part of the spectrum; and magenta absorbs mainly in the green part of the spectrum. If we add magenta and cyan together we get absorbing in the red and green parts of the spectrum but we allow the blue light to be reflected."
To break it down, Westland offers this handy dandy guide:
B = M + C
G = C + Y
R = Y + M
If this in-depth explanation busted every color myth that's been ingrained in your brain since childhood and you're feeling a bit panicked, take heart: coloring books are reportedly great stress busters. And if you're desperate to learn more, check out Westland's two-minute video series on the subject and his blog. Fairchild also created a great resource that he says is for kids, but honestly — every adult should be required to study it.
Now That's Interesting
If you feel like every person you've dated has cited blue as their favorite color, you're probably not mistaken – apparently, 40 percent of the worldwide population says it's their fave (purple is a close second at 14 percent).
Originally Published: Jul 2, 2019
Primary Colors FAQ
What are the real primary colors?
In art class, we learned that the three primary colors are red, yellow and blue. In the world of physics, however, the three primary colors are red, green and blue.
What is additive color mixing?
Additive color mixing is the process of mixing red, green and blue light in different ways to create new colors. Every light source addition makes the resulting color brighter and closer to white. Combining all three colors equally results in white while removing them results in black.
What is subtractive color mixing?
Subtractive color mixing involves mixing paint pigments and ink that absorb or selectively transmit light. In this type of mixing, cyan, magenta and yellow are used, all of which reflect less light when mixed.
What is the difference between additive and subtractive color?
An additive color is one created by mixing red, green and blue light in different combinations. Additive colors begin as black and become brighter as you add different light. In contrast, a subtractive color is made by partial absorption of different colors of paint or ink. They begin as white and take on the appearance of the added colors or their mixtures.
What are the primary colors in the CMYK color model?
The three primary colors of the CMYK or subtractive color mixing model are cyan, magenta and yellow.
What are the primary colors check all the correct answers? ›
Three Primary Colors (Ps): Red, Yellow, Blue. Three Secondary Colors (S'): Orange, Green, Violet. Six Tertiary Colors (Ts): Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, Red-Violet, which are formed by mixing a primary with a secondary.Are red yellow and blue really primary colors? ›
Primary colors include red, blue and yellow. Primary colors cannot be mixed from other colors. They are the source of all other colors. Secondary colors are mixed from two primary colors adjacent to each other on the color wheel.What are the 4 main primary colors? ›
The four primary colors in the 4-primary color wheel are blue, yellow, green and red. This differs from the color mixing wheel, which only has three primary colors.What are the 5 true primary colors? ›
Robert Boyle, the Irish chemist, introduced the term primary color in English in 1664 and claimed that there were five primary colors (white, black, red, yellow, and blue).What color does all 3 primary colors make? ›
And when all three primary colors of light are combined, we see white light.When all 3 primary colors are present in equal amounts the result is? ›
When all three primary colors are present in equal proportions, the resulting color is brown. Secondary Colors are colors obtained by mixing equal parts f two primary colors. The secondary colors are green, orange, and violet.What makes the primary colors? ›
Almost all visible colors can be obtained by the additive color mixing of three colors that are in widely spaced regions of the visible spectrum. If the three colors of light can be mixed to produce white, they are called primary colors and the standard additive primary colors are red, green and blue.What are the 3 primary colors of light? ›
Red, green, and blue are known as the primary colors of light. The combinations of two of the three primary colors of light produce the secondary colors of light. The secondary colors of light are cyan, magenta, and yellow.Do primary colors have opposites? ›
To understand how the true color wheel works, you need to know that the primary colors (Red, Green, Blue) and secondary colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow) are opposites. Cyan and red are directly across from one another.What are the 7 main colors? ›
The colours of the rainbow are: Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Can you find items from around the house in each of the seven colours? How many red items can you find?
What is the truth about primary colors? ›
Our color vision comes from certain cells called cone cells. There are three types of cone cells. One reacts mostly to red light, another reacts mostly to green, and the third reacts mostly to blue. That's why red, green and blue are the primary colors: The human eye can really see only these three colors.Are there 7 main colors? ›
He coined the idea that there are seven colours in a spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet (ROYGBIV).What were the first primary colors? ›
The expression "primary colour" has its origin in the historical concept that yellow, red and blue, initially alongside white and black, were the "simple", "primitive" or "primary" colours from which all others could be derived by mixing.How many different 4 colors are there? ›
Four colors can make 64 different combinations.What are the 3 basic color theories? ›
However, there are three basic categories of color theory that are logical and useful : The color wheel, color harmony, and the context of how colors are used. Color theories create a logical structure for color.Can you get all colors from primary colors? ›
The three primaries of yellow, red and blue can be mixed to produce any colour of the rainbow. You may have been taught this at school, but the theory doesn't quite apply perfectly to colour mixing with fine art paints.What two colors make black? ›
You can make black paint by mixing together equal parts red, blue, and yellow paint. You can also mix opposite colors on the color wheel to make black, like red and green, blue and orange, or yellow and purple. Blue and brown mixed together will also make black.Is there a third color? ›
Yellow is the third color. The seven colors in the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet – always appear in the same order.When all 3 primary colors are combined the result is neutral? ›
If all three primary colors of light are mixed in equal proportions, the result is neutral (gray or white).What are the three primary colors what happens when they are mixed? ›
The three additive primary colours are red, green, and blue; this means that, by additively mixing the colours red, green, and blue in varying amounts, almost all other colours can be produced, and, when the three primaries are added together in equal amounts, white is produced.
What are the 3 primary colors of visible light which in different combinations produce all the colors of the spectrum? ›
All the colors we see are combinations of red, green, and blue light. Visible light may be a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum, but there are still many variations of wavelengths. We see these variations as colors. On one end of the spectrum is red light, with the longest wavelength.What is a primary color quizlet? ›
Primary colors are three specific colors that can be combined in varying amounts to create all possible colors. The primary colors of light are red, green, and blue. When red light strikes a white surface, red light is reflected. Similarly, when blue light strikes a white surface, blue light is reflected.What does primary color mean in art? ›
These are colors that can't be created by mixing of other colors. Instead, they combine to create secondary colors, which in turn combine to create tertiary colors. In effect, all colors stem from the three primaries. Using Primary Colors in Art. Are Red, Yellow, and Blue Primary Colors?
Colours which cannot be produced by mixing other colours are called primary colours. It is not found possible to produce either red, blue or green colours by mixing two other colours. For this reason red, green and blue are called primary colours. A secondary colour can be produced by mixing other colours.Which of the following are not the three primary colors of light? ›
Now, considering the option (d) i.e. Blue, we know that blue colour cannot be obtained by combining any of the colours but using red colour we can make many different colours such as, green, brown etcetera. Hence, we can say that Green is not a primary colour. So, the correct answer is “Option C”.Is white a color or not? ›
Some consider white to be a color, because white light comprises all hues on the visible light spectrum. And many do consider black to be a color, because you combine other pigments to create it on paper. But in a technical sense, black and white are not colors, they're shades. They augment colors.Do opposite colors exist? ›
Complementary colors are pairs of colors which, when combined or mixed, cancel each other out (lose hue) by producing a grayscale color like white or black. When placed next to each other, they create the strongest contrast for those two colors. Complementary colors may also be called "opposite colors".Do colors have an opposite color? ›
Colors from opposite positions on the color wheel are considered to be complementary. Red and green, yellow and violet and blue and yellow-orange are complementary colors.What are the two most opposite colors? ›
Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel are considered to be complementary colors (example: red and green).What are the 12 main colors? ›
There are 12 main colors on the color wheel. In the RGB color wheel, these hues are red, orange, yellow, chartreuse green, green, spring green, cyan, azure, blue, violet, magenta and rose. The color wheel can be divided into primary, secondary and tertiary colors.
What are the 8 types of color? ›
- Analogous vs Complementary. Analogous colors have a similar hue and offer a unified feel. ...
- Background vs Foreground. ...
- Warm vs Cool. ...
- Matching vs Clashing. ...
- Light vs Dark. ...
- Chromatic vs Achromatic. ...
- Monochromatic vs Polychromatic. ...
- Bright vs Dull.
The colors red, green, and blue are classically considered the primary colors of light because they are fundamental to human vision.What is a pure primary color? ›
A Primary Yellow, Red or Blue paint color usually refers to a paint that contains only one pigment. They are unmixed pigments that can't be created by mixing other colors.What are the three primary colors Why are they important? ›
The colors red, green, and blue are classically considered the primary colors because they are fundamental to human vision. All other colors of the visible light spectrum can be produced by properly adding different combinations of these three colors.Is there a 8th color? ›
The seven colors of the rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, cyan blue, indigo blue and violet. There is no 8th color. Infrared is invisible to the human eye and manifests as heat. At the other end, Ultraviolet is also invisible.Does a rainbow have every color? ›
Ask anyone to draw a rainbow and they'll remember the handy acronym ROY G. BIV for all the colors. But not all rainbows hold red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet in their bands. Under certain conditions, many of those hues just don't appear.What colours are not in the rainbow? ›
Purple, magenta, and hot pink, as we know, don't occur in the rainbow from a prism because they can only be made as a combination of red and blue light. And those are on opposite sides of the rainbow, nowhere near overlapping.What are primary colors quizlet? ›
The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. They are called primary for a couple of reasons. First, no two colors can be mixed to create a primary color. Secondly, all other colors found on the color wheel can be created by mixing primary colors together.What are the primary colors of light check all that apply? ›
The primary colours of light are red, green and blue. Mixing these colours in different proportions can make all the colours of the light we see. This is how TV and computer screens work. If you look at a screen with a magnifying glass you will be able to see that only these three colours are being used.What are primary colors in art? ›
Primary colors include yellow, blue, and red. These are colors that can't be created by mixing of other colors. Instead, they combine to create secondary colors, which in turn combine to create tertiary colors. In effect, all colors stem from the three primaries. Using Primary Colors in Art.
What are primary colors called? ›
There are three primary colors. Red, green, and blue are called primary colors. These colors are called primary because these colors cannot be formed by mixing any two or more two colors. On mixing primary colors in equal amounts, white color is obtained.Why is it called primary color? ›
Primary means “first”, and primary colors are therefore the first colors you need in order to mix a variety of other colors. Knowing your primary colors is the first step to achieving proper color mixing. What are primary colors? Color is actually a component of light.What color is not a primary color quizlet? ›
What is not a primary color? Black. Obtained by mixing equal parts of two primary colors. Orange, green, and violet.Which of the following is the correct order of colors of light? ›
The seven constituent colours are Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red; in that order. This forms the famous abbreviation- VIBGYOR. The individual colours are ordered according to increasing wavelengths.Why is yellow not a primary color of light? ›
That being said, sometimes cyan, yellow, and magenta are NOT the primary colors. They are the secondary colors for light. Light and color are actually electromagnetic waves, and the different colors are different frequencies of light. Red light is small waves, green is medium, and blue is big waves.How are you describe primary colors? ›
Primary colours are basic colours that can be mixed together to produce other colours. They are usually considered to be red, yellow, blue, and sometimes green. It comes in bright primary colours that kids will love.What are the three primary colors and why? ›
Painters' subtractive primary colors are red, yellow and blue. These three hues are called primary because they cannot be made with mixtures of other pigments."