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Red, yellow and blue aren't actually primary colors, according to updated color wheel

This explains why mixing blue and red paint always gave us "muddy eggplant" instead of vibrant purple as kids.

color wheel
EugeGreco/Public Domain

Cyan, magenta and yellow are the new primary paint colors in town.

One of the first things most of us learned in art class was that red, yellow and blue are the primary colors. All other colors could be made from some combination of these three, we were told, plus black and white for tints and shades. We probably even remember mixing various amounts of red, blue and yellow together to make the secondary colors of orange, green and purple.

Except making purplewas always a problem, wasn't it? Did anyone ever make a vibrant purple mixing red and blue together? No. It usually came out a sort of muddy eggplant color instead of the bright iris purple we were looking for. As artis Anna Evans shared in a recent Facebook post, "I used to get very frustrated trying to mix purples, they always came out the colour of dried blood. It was not purple." After hours of research on color theory, she added magenta to her palette and never looked back.

There's a reason for that. We've basically had the primary colors for pigments wrong.


Instead of red, yellow and blue being the primary colors for paints, magenta, yellow and cyan are more accurate. This isn't really a new idea—CMYK has been used for printing for over a century—but for most of us, the RYB = primary colors equation has practically been as unquestionable as 2+2=4.

Color theory can get a bit complicated, especially since color works differently with light (additive color) than it does with pigments (subtractive color), but in some ways this new color wheel simplifies things on both fronts.

color wheel

The CMY color wheel (outside) with the older RYB color wheel (inside)

EugeGreco/Public Domain

The reason our red and blue paint mixing experiments always created muddy purple is because there's actually yellow in most red pigments. Yellow and magenta can actually be mixed to make red. In addition, cyan and magenta can be mixed to make blue, so the idea that nothing can make red or blue because they are primary colors isn't actually true.

What makes this color wheel simpler than the RYB one is that red, blue and green are the primary colors for light, while cyan, magenta, and yellow are secondary. For pigments, in the CMY color wheel, it's just the opposite. That's easier than trying to wrap your head around light colors being so different than pigments when it comes to primary and secondary colors; all you have to remember is that they're swapped.

If all of this sounds bunk and you're absolutely sure that red, blue and yellow must be the primary colors because that's what you learned and have always believed, check out artist Jazza's experiment in which he tries to make cyan and magenta out of red, blue and yellow. It's quite entertaining.

However, there is some controversy over this whole concept in the art world. While some have been thrilled to realize why their colors didn't always come out the way they wanted them to using the RYB color wheel and have found CMY to be much more color-mix friendly, there are arguments for not throwing the RYB baby out with the bathwater. It's not so much that it's entirely wrong as that our definition of primary colors might need a bit of revamping.

For a more in-depth and nuanced view of what primary colors actually are and why there are arguments for considering both RYB and CMY as primary colors, check out Florent Farges' excellent explanation of the whole primary color controversy here:

If there's one takeaway from all of this, it's that when it comes to pigments, yellow clearly reigns supreme. All hail the almighty yellow!

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