Numbers (Level 2)

University of Rochester Chapel Stained Glass
Almost any color can be a primary color depending on how it is used and what other colors it is used with. Notice how I was able to make gray paint out of two different sets of primaries, the more traditional red, yellow, and blue set and the very untraditional set of green, purple, and orange!

What are the Primary Colors?

Red, yellow, and blue, of course! Sorry, not so fast. Even though many of us are taught that red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors in our school art classes, we have actually been misled a little bit. Red, yellow, and blue are one common set of primary colors that are often used in painting pictures. However, they are not the only set of primary colors. In television and computer displays, red, green, and blue are the primary colors. In photography, red, green and blue are the primary colors for capturing the image, but cyan, magenta, and yellow are the primaries for printing the image. In printing, cyan, magenta, and yellow are common primary colors. And when colors are made for other purposes, like house paint, plastics, and textiles, very different sets of primary colors are often used. Why are there so many different sets of primary colors?

Technically speaking, primary colors are defined as any set of three (or more) colors for which no one of the colors can be made by mixing any of the others from the set. With this definition, the best sets of primary colors depend on what you are doing with them. That is why we end up with the most common sets being red, yellow, and blue for artists' paints, red, green, and blue for televisions, and cyan, magenta, and yellow for printing.

There is another common use of the term "primary colors". Sometimes people will talk about something being decorated in primary colors. In that case, they are usually talking about very bright, saturated colors of any of the most basic hues. These would include red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple.

Icon 4-2

Explore the NEXT TOPIC at this level.

Explore the NEXT LEVEL on this topic.

Ever wonder ... How does a television make colors?


Updated: Apr. 19, 2011