So, Who Are the Primary Colors?

Author: snufflemuffin

Ok, we’ve established that red and blue are not really primary colors, but who are the primary colors? There are actually two sets of primary colors, equaling six primary colors in total.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. I was told that there are only three primary colors when I was in school. What’s this business now about SIX primary colors?! I call shenanigans!” 


Good question, and it’s not shenanigans—it’s science!

Two Sets of Primaries: RGB & CMY
We refer to one set of primary colors as “RGB,” which stands for red, green, and blue. These are the primaries when making color with light (think rainbows or a sunbeam coming through a prism). Televisions and computers use different mixes of red, green, and blue light to make all of the beautiful colors they produce. The way light works when producing color in this way is called “additive color” because you start with black (i.e., the total absence of light) and get white when you combine all three RGB primaries together at full intensity (i.e., 100% of each).

The other set of primary colors is referred to as “CMY,” which stands for cyan, magenta, and yellow. These are the primary colors when working with pigments (think ink, paint, or crayons). Virtually all of the printed materials that you come across in the world use CMY inks to make all of the beautiful printed colors you see. The way light works when producing color in this way is called “subtractive color“ because you get black (i.e., full light absorption) when you combine all three CMY primaries together at full intensity (i.e., 100% of each).

Color Mixing with RGB
Here’s an example of how to create an orange, a purple, and a gray using the additive system of RGB.


Did you notice that you arrive at orange by mixing red and green in the RGB system? What’s that about? Well, in the RGB system, red and green combine to produce yellow light. So, when you start with red light and add green to move towards yellow, you pass through the range of orange colors on the way.

Color Mixing with CMY
Now let’s look at how these same colors are made in the subtractive system of CMY.


Pretty trippy that you get gray when you mix these three vibrant colors in (relatively) equal amounts, huh?

Up Next: Physics!
Wanna get even color geekier? Be sure to check out my next post, “Additive and Subtractive Color,” where we’ll begin to explore the fascinating physics of light!

Author: snufflemuffin

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