Maggie Maggio

Exploring Color in the 21st Century

Primal Red

One of the challenges of teaching a color workshop is asking students to stop thinking of red as a primary when mixing pigments, dyes and inks.

Even after demonstrating that magenta and yellow make red, its still mind boggling to relegate red to secondary status.


Why is it so hard to give up the primacy of red?

I think its because no matter where you live – in the desert, the arctic, the city, or the forest;  no matter the season – fall, winter, spring or summer; no matter the level of development – primitive or technological; you will see the same red – the red that is the color of blood.

The most famous, and controversial, experiment on the language of colors was conducted by the anthropologist and linguist team of  Berlin and Kay in 1969.  They studied color terms in ninety-eight languages and ended up grouping the languages into seven stages.

Berlin and Kay’s stages run from Stage I for languages with color words only for black and white, up to Stage VII for languages with words for the whole range of colors.  Stage II, right after black and white, includes cultures who add a word for RED to their language.

Red comes before yellow, green and even before the color of the sky – blue. These four colors are often called the psychological primaries due to their strong associations. But, of the four, RED is the most powerful.

Even after twenty years of teaching, I still can’t seem to think of red as anything but primary. Somehow magenta just doesn’t have the same ooomph.

But just because red is not a pure mixing primary doesn’t mean it loses its strength.  I know how hard it is to bump red out of the primary line-up,  so I like to think of red as primal rather than primary.  That seems to help.

1 Comment

  1. Interesting! infact I can’t avoid thinking of red as a primary color… thanks for sharing

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