When you work with color, two of the most important things to learn are:
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.
- How to mix colors to that you can get exactly what you want;
- How to control color values so that your pictures don't look
What are primary colors?
Color is actually a component of light. Light travels in waves, and these waves
have different lengths and speeds. When the waves reach our visual receptors
(our eyes), we experience the sensation of color. These wavelengths of light
can be broken down into three (primary) categories:
Red, green and blue are
called the primary colors of light. These colors are used to project images in
television screens, computer monitors, and anything that transmits light from
a light source.
- The longer, slower wavelengths produce red light
- The shorter, quicker wavelengths produce blue light
- The middle range wavelengths produce green light.
- An equal mixture of these wavelengths produces pure, white light.
But, as artists, we are using pigments (paints, inks, dyes, etc.), not light.
So what does light have to do with primary colors? Actually, everything! Colors
of pigment are produced by reflecting and absorbing certain wavelengths of light.
Primary colors of pigment
A primary color of pigment is a color that reflects equal parts of any two of
the (primary) colors of light (red, green and blue). Diagram A illustrates the
result of projecting red, green and blue lights onto a white surface in overlapping
fashion. Where any one light reaches the surface, it is reflected back from the
surface. Where two lights overlap, they are both reflected from the surface,
resulting in a mixture of those two colors. Here's how it works:
three resulting colors, cyan, magenta and yellow,
are the three primary colors of pigment. These are the purest colors, and cannot
be produced by mixing other pigment colors.
- Where red and blue lights overlap, they combine to produce magenta.
- Where blue and green lights overlap, they combine to produce cyan.
- Where green and red lights overlap, they combine to produce yellow.
- (Where all three lights overlap, they combine to produce white.)
Using these three colors, you can produce a vast number of other colors. When
white or black are added to your colors, the range is even greater. Following
is a very basic guide for mixing colors using cyan, magenta and yellow.
First, let's take a look at what happens when we overlap the three primary colors
of pigment. Using a format similar to a Diagram A, we can mix "equal" parts
of any two of these primary colors to produce an opposite result. Diagram B illustrates
the results of blending (mixing) equal parts of any two primary colors of pigment.
Because pigments reflect and absorb light, their resulting mixtures are not as
pure as light. Some pigments tend to be more intense than others, so an "equal" mixture
is relative to the intensity of the pigment. This is why a color wheel is very
useful as a guide to color matching.
Okay, so now we have our three primary colors. How can we produce
so many other colors from just these three? Actually color is
quite mathematical. Just as you can add 1 and 1 to make 2, or
0.5 and 0.5 to make 1, you can mix colors in a similar manner.
- When magenta and cyan pigments are blended, the resulting
mixture is blue.
- When cyan and yellow pigments are blended, the resulting
mixture is green.
- When yellow and magenta pigments are blended, the resulting
mixture is red.
- When all three colors are blended, the result is a "black" color.
This black is rarely a pure black, as some light is still
Let's start with yellow and magenta. If you mix these two colors together, you
produce red. What would happen if you then mix yellow and red? Here you have
twice as much yellow as magenta, and the resulting color is orange.
C shows how colors can be incrementally mixed to produce a vast
array of "in-between colors".
But what if you want to produce a beautiful, rich brown, a maroon, or a subtle
grayish-blue? This is where placing colors around a wheel is an excellent way
to illustrate color mixtures. The colors we have looked at so far are produced
in a "linear" fashion, by mixing any two colors equally, then varying
the amount of each of the two primary colors.
If we look at colors arranged in a circle, we will see that colors can also be
mixed across the circle. So far, we have mixed only around the outside of the
"Breaking colors" across the wheel, or creating tones, is achieved
by mixed varying amounts of colors that are opposite each other on the color
wheel. For instance, if you mix equal parts of red and cyan (opposite colors,
or complements), the result will be a dark grayish-black color. (Opposite colors
neutralize each other). If you mix a small part of cyan to red, the result will
be a red-brown color. If you mix more cyan, the result will be a bit grayer,
etc. When creating tones you are actually lowering the saturation, or intensity,
of the original pure colors.
When you add white to a color, you are creating a tint of that color. The more
white you add, the lighter the color becomes.
When you add black to a color, you are creating a shade of that color. The more
black you add, the deeper the color becomes.
Now you have the basics of mixing colors from the three primary colors, cyan,
magenta and yellow. If you have a color wheel it will be easier to practice mixing,
as you can look at the wheel and have an actual color to match. Practice mixing
colors around the wheel, and when you are happy with the results, try mixing
across the wheel, then creating tints and shades by adding white or black to
any of your colors. Happy painting!
Bev Harcus is an artist and instructor in computer graphics, and color theory.
Bev and Patricia Jaster, owners of Artscool Graphics, work closely with The Color
Wheel Company. Bev and Patricia are available for workshops on color theory and
color mixing. They can be reached at email@example.com.
For questions about your CMY Primary Mixing WheelTM products
see our Frequently asked questions page.