Apparently some people believe red, yellow, and blue are not the primary colors and if you believe they are, you’re no better than people who believe the world is flat.

I need to explain why CMY and RYB are both correct, but RYB is the most correct.

The primary red, yellow, and blue we all think of are the versions of those colors without any of the other two primary colors. It’s the easiest one for kids and most people to understand. These are the most basic, pure colors, but that does not mean there are no other reds, yellows, or blues or that they are even the best three tube colors for mixing every single color ever.

We can all see that a red delicious apple and a red fire truck aren’t really the same color red, but we still call them both red. Why do we do that?

The answer is hue families.

Most red, yellow, blue combinations can make all the colors, but not ALL the colors. They can make a violet, an orange, a green, but they are a limited range. That part of the CMY argument is absolutely true.

So why, as artists, don’t we just use magenta, cyan, and yellow to mix all the colors? Why do we bother with hue families at all? Why do we need to say red, yellow, blue as a general statement versus the more specific magenta, cyan, yellow?

Color theory is complicated. Most people don’t need to know the names of every color and I’ve learned even a large number of artists don’t want to learn more than what they need.

If you’re mixing your own paints, I’m sure you’ve learned that not all paints mix well together.

There are entire books dedicated to recipes for color mixing.

You may be thinking that using just magenta, cyan, and yellow would limit the need for all that, but what you’re essentially doing it handing three pigments to someone and saying go make every color under the sun yourself.

If you want an earth tone painting, do you really want to start with magenta, cyan, and yellow, three very bright colors, to mix each earth tone or would you rather start with colors like brown madder, yellow ochre, and prussian blue? You absolutely could start with tubes of CMY and I would even agree that mixing your own would probably have much better results, but to say brown madder, yellow ochre, and prussian blue wouldn’t give you all the colors you need for that painting is wrong. They will make a violet, they will make an orange, they will make a green and most importantly, they will all work well together.

These colors aren’t exact. My scanner was not having it. The magenta should be more violet and the yellow ochre is too red and the brown madder is too bright, but you can see the general concept. I also don’t actually have a cyan, so that’s why the turquoise is there.

Color mixing and planning are hard. You have to know transparent vs opaque. You have to know cool vs warm, vibrant vs earth tones, etc. Even if you have the time to mix, you also need the time to learn.

This is why you will see portrait kits vs landscape kits at stores. Because people just want the work done for them. Not that that’s a bad thing. You have to be a special kind of nerd to get this worked up over three colors. It is easy to feel defeated and overwhelmed before you even begin a painting. That’s no fun and it stops people from trying.

If your kit comes with a red, a blue, and a yellow, it is still in your best interest to know that you can mix those to get a violet, a green, and an orange even if they are not all the violets, all the oranges, and all the greens

I haven’t tried mixing CMY to earth tones, but I’m assuming that’s one place black would need to be involved at some point. I’ve read CMY can make a dark gray, but that’s it. Google said. “CMY will be able to cover most lighter color ranges quite easily, compared to using RGB. However, while CMY by itself will not be able to create very deep dark colors or a “true black,” so black (designated “K” for “key color”) is added to CMY so a much wider range of colors can be achieved compared to just RGB.”

To summarize the video below, they use acrylic magenta and cyan paints to mix primary blue. Then they try to mix magenta using primary red, primary blue, and white paint. It doesn’t work.. Therefore, they claim blue can’t be a primary because it can be mixed and since blue and red can’t make magenta, magenta and cyan must be the true primaries.

First, you can make cyan and magenta, so by their account, yellow is literally the only primary color and we are both wrong.

Second, if you’re mixing a lighter green blue and a lighter violet red, (cyan and magenta) the complimentary colors would naturally make a darker version of the most used primary color. Cyan would be (y+b)+b and magenta is (b+r)+r. There’s more blue than red so it won’t be red. The green would neutralize the red and you’d be left with b+b.

Each letter in that equation equals one part paint so you have two parts red and technically, two parts green because the yellow and blue are equal so it doubles, and two parts blue. (They won’t be exactly equal amounts of paint because blue is more powerful so you need less to get the same effect than you do of yellow and red. It is equal to visual effect, not amount of pigment.)

The red and green make a gray. Gray darkens the light blue into a primary blue. That’s not trickery. That’s literal color theory using red and blue and yellow as the primary colors. It also does it without effecting the quality of the pigments like adding tube black or tube white would. You still have the same amount you started with. If you add black or white, you’re changing the composition of the mixture.

Now to their second theory. You can’t mix magenta from blue and red.

They add white and don’t get magenta. Of course they don’t. This is supposed to be an ah-ha moment, I believe, but it’s completely expected. White pigment will never give you a vibrant light color.

Here’s a link to a discussion with pictures where I want to quote this bit:

“This makes me wonder if magenta pigments have to be transparent to be magenta. I don’t know a single pigment which is both opaque and magenta.” Yes! You need to know transparent vs opaque if you’re going to mix. Adding white paint will make a transparent color opaque and cloudy.

Printers 100% use the white of the paper so the inks must be transparent.

What this means is magenta is in fact a mixture of blue and red with transparency to let the white of the paper reflect back, lightening the visual effect of the pigment without clouding or dulling it with added white pigment. This is why you cannot get it by adding white paint. It’s not the fault of primary blue and red. The artist is trying to get an effect solely with pigment that you can only get with light bouncing through pigment

Third, the artist claims you can not get a dark neutral from RYB, only brown. I don’t typically use true primaries, but here is what I was able to do:

Bismuth Yellow, Winsor Red, Ultramarine (GS) make gray.

I wasn’t even sure how this would turn out since the red and yellow are both more opaque than I normally use, but that looks like a pretty solid gray to me.

If it is a mixture of two colors it can not be a primary, by definition. Blue and red must exist before you can have a tint of red violet. Even adding white means it isn’t a primary because you’re adding something to change it from its original state.

The primaries are still red, blue, and yellow.

About Elisha

Elisha Dasenbrock is an award winning, international watercolor artist. She paints with a limited palette on claybord. Dasenbrock graduated from the American Academy of Art in 2009 and has been painting professionally ever since.