The color wheel with primary, secondary and tertiary colors

What Do You Get When You Mix Two Primary Colors Together? – Color Mixing Basics For Beginners

Color has been present in art history since the earliest eras, already used by prehistoric artists who made cave drawings. Colors evoke emotions and affect our mood, they are an important part of our lives.

No matter what kind of paint or technique you work with, learning the basics of color theory and color mixing will be valuable for you. Allow me to shed some light on the subject.

Mixing two primary colors creates a secondary color. There are three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. Mixing two primary colors in equal amounts produces three secondary colors as follows: 

• Blue + yellow = green 
• Blue + red = violet 
• Red + yellow = orange

Opposite to each primary color on the color wheel is the secondary color that is derived from mixing the other two primary colors. These opposing hues are called complementary colors. Accordingly, the complementary color of red is green, the complementary color of yellow is violet (purple), and the complementary color of blue is orange.

What are the primary colors?

The three primary colors of pigments are red, yellow, and blue. It is not possible to produce primary colors by mixing any other colors.

From the three primary colors, you can mix all the colors of the spectrum. In theory, if the primary colors are mixed in equal proportions, black color is obtained.

The three primary colors of light are red, green, and blue (RGB).

The primary colors used in printing are cyan, yellow, magenta, and black (CMYK).

color wheel with primary secondary tertiary colors
The Color Wheel

Color and light

The colors that exist in nature are the different wavelengths of light that our environment either reflects or absorbs. In the dark, all objects are colorless.

The reflected rays of light penetrate the eye and cause stimuli in the retina. These stimuli signal to the brain, which compares these to previous experiences and identifies colors.

When light rays collide with an opaque object, that surface absorbs some of the light rays and reflects the rest. The reflected light is seen as the color of the object.

A red object absorbs blue and green rays of light and reflects red ones. The white surface reflects the entire color spectrum and the black absorbs all the rays of the spectrum.

Sir Isaac Newton`s color theory

The first color wheel was created by Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), an English mathematician and philosopher.

In 1666, Newton discovered that the rays of the sun, passing through a triangular glass prism, split into the colors of a rainbow. He called these the colors of the spectrum. Newton was able to convert the colors of the spectrum to white light again using a second prism.

The colors of the spectrum are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. Newton’s color theory was published in 1704 in his Opticks treatise.

Two systems of color mixing

Color mixing can take place in two systems: in one we mix pigment materials and in the other, we mix light rays.

1. Additive color mixing

Additive color mixing occurs when light rays mix. In additive color mixing, the primary colors are red, green, and blue rays of light. The RGB abbreviation was created from the names of these three colors. As a result of their mixing, white color is formed.

More than 16 million colors can be produced by mixing the colors of light rays.

2. Subtractive color mixing

Subtractive color mixing refers to the mechanical mixing of pigments. During mixing, the reflectivity of the pigments decreases, and light is subtracted from them.

The primary colors of subtractive color mixing are blue, red, and yellow.

The color of the pigments used for painting is also visible due to the reflected light. In theory, mixing the three primary pigments, red, blue, and yellow, results in black. Depending on the purity of the paint materials, dark brown or grey is sometimes obtained instead of black.

Color pigments are chemically produced and mixed with various binders. Based on these, they can be oil fragrances or water-soluble paints such as watercolors, acrylics, and tempera.

The basic colors used in printing are cyan, yellow, magenta, and black (CYMK).

Complementary colors

Opposite colors on the color wheel are called complementary colors. Each of the three primary colors has a complementary color, which is a secondary color produced from a mixture of the other two primary colors.

basic color wheel
Complementary colors on the color wheel

Based on this, the complementary color of yellow is violet, which is obtained by mixing blue and red. The complementary color of blue is orange, which is a mixture of red and yellow. The complementary color of red is green, which is obtained by mixing yellow and blue.

On the other hand, the complementary color of each secondary color is the primary that is not contained in that particular secondary color.

Mixing two complementary colors results in gray, brown, or black.

Complementary colors are also contrasting colors

By placing complementary colors side by side, we can create strong color contrast and make the colors appear more vivid. Using complementary colors, you can express light and shadow or cold-warm color contrast.

To avoid too strong a contrast that no longer harmonizes, we need to add the grays we get by mixing complementary colors and applying color transitions.

An example of the excellent use of complementary colors can be seen in Vincent Van Gogh’s painting NoonRest from Work, in which he used blue and orange, along with color variations, transitions, and grays.

Vincent van Gogh Noon rest from work
Vincent Van Gogh: Noon – Rest from Work, Public Domain. Image source

What are tertiary colors?

Tertiary colors are located between the primary and secondary colors on the color wheel. A tertiary color is obtained by mixing a secondary color with the primary that is next to it on the color wheel.

  • Between red and orange, there is red-orange, and between red and violet there is red-violet.
  • Between yellow and green is yellow-green, and between yellow and orange is yellow-orange.
  • There is blue-violet between blue and violet and green-blue between blue and green.

Analogous colors

Analogous colors are those primary and secondary colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel and therefore harmonize with each other.

Examples of such color families are:

  • Yellow, yellow-green, and green
  • Red, red-orange, and orange
  • Blue, blue-violet, and violet
  • Violet, red-violet, and red

Cool and warm colors

Warm colors are those related to yellow and red, and cold colors are related to blue. If we mix yellow with another color, we get a warmer color, and if we add blue, we get a cooler color.

warm and cool colors colorwheel

The colors red and yellow, as well as the orange obtained from them, are associated with fire and the Sun. Blue is the color of ice and water, so we associate it with cold. Based on their spatial effect, we perceive warm colors as approaching, and cold colors as if they are moving away from us.

Final thoughts

It is good for everyone to know the basics of color theory because colors are an important part of our lives.

The secondary color is a mixture of two primary colors. The three primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. Primary colors cannot be produced by combining other colors. The three secondary colors are obtained as follows:

  • Red and yellow make orange.
  • Yellow and blue make green
  • Blue and red make purple.

The complementary of each primary color is the secondary color that is opposite to it on the color wheel. Complementary color pairs are blue and orange, red and green, and yellow and purple.

Tertiary colors are made by mixing one of the secondary colors with the primary color next to it on the color wheel. This is how we create the yellow-orange and yellow-green colors related to yellow, the red-orange and red-purple colors related to red, and the blue-green and blue-purple colors related to blue.

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