Smashing Color

with Maggie Maggio

Smashing Color Theory #3: Red is NOT a Paint Primary

Color theory is not reality. It is a collection of concepts that explain the complexity of color in a very abstract way. Traditional color theory uses the same key concepts over and over because they are elegantly simple – not because they are always right.

Primary Colors

The first of these key concepts is the theory of primary colors. Primary colors are often defined as colors that cannot be mixed from any other colors. The reality is that there is no such thing as a pure primary but it is such a useful concept that it is usually taught at the beginning of most color classes.

I will eventually smash all of this but its important to understand the basics. In the last 300 years or so scientists and artists have come up with dozens of color systems that specify which colors come first (primaries), which come second (secondaries) and which are in between (intermediaries).

Some say there are only two primaries – yellow and blue or even black and white. Some say there are four primaries – red, yellow, green, and blue. But most often there are three primaries.

Primary Systems

There are two primary systems that you should be familiar with: RGB for light and CMY for pigment. The science behind these systems is intimidating to me. The easiest way to think about it is that these two systems are considered reciprocal, or opposite, to each other.

Light/Additive: Red, Green, Blue scan0005.jpg
The three primaries in light – Red,Green,
Blue (RGB) combine to make the three light secondaries – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow.
Red (red-orange)+ Green = Yellow.
Green + Blue (blue-violet) = Cyan.
Blue + Red = Magenta.

Notice that the secondaries are lighter than the primaries. That’s because when RBG primaries are combined they add light to the color- hence the additive system.

Theory says all three primaries together will make white light. The RGB system is used in computers, TV, photography, neon art, and theater lighting.

Exercise #1

If you are not already familiar with the RGB system, it is easy to learn. You don’t need any fancy programs. Just draw a box in a Word document and fill it with a color using the custom color option. Type in the RGB numbers. Copy the box and change the fill color.

Note the new numbers. If you have never used RGB then the mixing will be counter-intuitive at first. Once you get the hang of it you can predict what the RGB numbers will be. Even more fun is guessing what blends will look like. There are lots of ways to play with color this way on the web.

Pigment/Subtractive: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow

cmy.jpgThe three primaries in pigment – Cyan, Magenta,Yellow (CMY), combine to make the three pigment secondaries – Red, Green and Blue.
Cyan + Magenta = Blue (blue-violet). Magenta + Yellow = Red (red-orange).
Yellow + Cyan = Green.

Notice that the secondaries are darker than the primaries.

That’s because when the primaries are combined they subtract light – hence the subtractive system. Theory says all three primaries will make black. The reality is they make mud.

Printers add Black (k for key) to the CMY system for a number of reasons so this system is often referred to as the “smike” system for CMYk. The CMY system is used in paints, dyes, inks and polymer clay.

Red, Yellow, Blue

What happened to the traditional Red, Yellow, Blue system?
There are many color ordering systems that still use the RYB primaries but some most widely used systems do not use primaries at all. The early 20th century Munsell system is one of the most famous. Munsell used five principle hues – Red, Yellow, Green, Blue and Purple with five in-between hues. Some brands of paint are still labeled according to the ten hue families of the Munsell code system.

What about the Red? Isn’t Red one of the primaries?
It is a primary in the RGB light mixing system but in reality the red of the RGB system is more like a red-orange or a scarlet. In my classes, I call the “Red” crayon “old red” and the “Scarlet” crayon “new red”.  In paint I can mix a color that is close to “old red” from a mixture of Magenta and a little Yellow, and I can make a “new red” from equal parts Magenta and Yellow. Since I can pretty much mix any red I want, I no longer think of red as the primary in paints, inks, dyes or polymer.

Exercise #2

I colored the top part of Smashing Color Handout #1 using my Crayola crayons. Print out a copy and color the bottom part using your crayons. (The Crayola crayon names are used to label the blank color wheels.)

Notice that the “Red” crayon does not get used on either the CMY or RGB color wheels. Compare the colors on your computer screen with the printed colors on the handout. Compare the printed and computer colors with your colored-in version.

I know how hard it is to make the shift to CMY. I still think in terms of ROYGBV. But it really helps to re-imagine the subtractive/paint primaries as  Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. Once I learned that Red is not a primary but a mixture of magenta with yellow in it, color mixing became much easier. We will play with mixing reds from magentas and yellows when we start working with polymer clay in January.

Next Week: Inside the Color Wheel
Wednesday: Materials List for Polymer Exercises


  1. So many people were fed color misinformation…in schools everyone was taught wrong and unfortunatly most go thru life holding those concepts of color. There needs to be a standarized definition of color, like Munsell or whatever one is best. I think Munsell bcuz it’s easy to comprehend. Tell people about Cyan, Magenta and Yellow as primary colors and thier whole world falls apart lol. It’s best to explain how each set of colors in CMY make up the colors of RGB and vice versa to explain the more new concepts about color.

  2. Hi, this is a very interesting post! I have studied some color theory and color mixing using acrylics and oils and have pondered some of these questions about what colors to consider primaries and to use as a base for mixing the full spectrum of color. I find the part where you point out that the secondary colors, according to your CMY model, are simply darker than the primaries themselves. By considering Red as a secondary color and not as a primary color, some fundamental problems with traditional approaches to color mixing clear up, such as with the theoretical mixing of violets and such. It is so strange that while we can fairly plainly see that in CMYK printing red is achieved by mixing yellow and magenta, when painting under the guise of creating “art” it is extremely difficult to put that into practice. I suppose based on our psychological need to function with red as a primary mixing color as you point out. It indeed seems to have a power over us, as illogical and unscientific as that may sound!

  3. Maggie Maggio

    October 5, 2011 at 10:29 am

    Hi John – Beautiful article. You sound like a kindred color geek. Can I throw out a bone? What do you call the blue ink, dye, paint color that is the least biased color to replace blue from the RYB system? Cyan is universally accepted as the name for the light secondary but the problem is that the pigment color that matches the color cyan on a computer screen does not really work as a subtractive mixing primary. Cyan has too much yellow. If you look at the printed version of pure cyan its closer to a phthalo blue (PB15:3) than a turquoise. But if you just call this color blue it gets confused with the blue-violet of the RGB system. I’m looking for more accurate naming. If it isn’t really Cyan and it isn’t really Blue what is it? Any ideas? (I usually just call it primary blue and describe the RGB Blue as BV.)

  4. Yes! Yes! Yes! The dogma of Red, Yellow Blue is so strong and pervasive that it is difficult to break through. This is a very well written and clear post. I recently posted a similar ideas at that I think you may enjoy as well. Thank you for the great work.

  5. admin

    September 11, 2007 at 3:44 pm

    Hi Bev – Just back from a long summer of teaching and traveling and have finally started to blog again. I am so glad that you are “learning new things”. Its just what I was hoping the blog would do – give artists another way to look at color. Too bad the active outdoor stuff is out of the question for now. I’ll bet you miss being outside. But I think you will find that polymer etc can be lots of fun! Maggie

  6. I just recently got into Polymer clay, PMC and jewelry making. And I took 4 years of art in high school, as well, as some other course outside of it. But you are never too old to learn. And how things changed since I was in high school. I was always taught the 3 colors were blue, yellow and red. But that was over 50 years ago. Because of illness. I have kidney failure. The doctors took away some of my hobbies. My kayaking is out. So is my canoeing. At least for a while. And I had to slow down for a while in my photography. I like wild life. I got interested in PMC. It is so nice to find a web site you can learn from. Keep up the good work. wish I found you sooner. Bev.

  7. Thank you! I now understand why blue and red do NOT make purple!! This has been a “rule” I learned quite young that seldom translated into reality. Now I see that the yellow in the red is making my purple into brown. I knew from experience it didn’t work, but now I know why, and what to do about it!

  8. Great summary of the different color “systems”, Maggie!

    This afternoon my color “intuition” was doing loop-de-loos. I was trying to mix pc and mix acrylic paints at the same time (so I could do some screen prints). I don’t recommend this to anyone! It felt like I was trying to speak two different languages – at the same time!

    I’m thinking Premo – which has lovely colors that are supposed to be “artist friendly” – hasn’t heard of Cyan. And their Maganeta looks more like bright pink. The only CMY primary they seem to get is Yellow. However, the paint I was using (Golden brand) holds pretty well to the CMY primarys. Thank goodness for small favors! Lol!

  9. Yesterday a customer picked out a pendant she liked and a leather cord to wear it on. The 2 colors did not look good together…to 4 other people. There were several other colors that looked better. She could not see the problem and repeatedly chose her first pick. It was good to know (as you said last week) that people see color differently. Can you lead me to info that better explains this phenomenon?

         Hi Myra –  There is a famous quote by Josef Albers in his Interaction of Color – “If one says “Red” (the name of a color) and there are fifty people listening, it can be expected that there will be fifty reds in their minds. And one can be sure that all these reds will be very different.” Another good reason to be using the crayons! When I say “Red” I mean the color of the red crayon.

    Though there is lots written about the subject, I haven’t come across anything that fully explains the phenomenon of the subjectivity of color perception.  I’m not up on the latest physiological and psychological studies so her book may be outdated, but I like Patricia Sloane’s The Visual Nature of Color from 1989.

  10. I really appreciate your sharing your research with us. I have been painting, and quilting for years, danced around color theory, quite successfully, I believe for the most part. But since I have been playing with polymer clay have been very unhappy on occasion with the color results. I already see where I have gone down the wrong road in mixing color. This will be an exciting journey and thank you.

  11. Hi, Maggie, I felt a little foolish buying a box of 64 crayons for a lady of my tender years. giggle. I have wanted so much to learn more about color. I loved sorting my colors. Since I had not ever sorted colors before, it was a truly new experience. One thing I have always been troubled with in my polymer clay playing is how to get the colors I envision in my head. Doesn’t work I quickly learned.
    Thanks so much, Maggie for the opportunity to share your knowledge or color. Hugs, Shirlee

  12. Wow! I hope I have my head wrapped around this by the next lesson…fascinating stuff…Thanks much.

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