A Lesson on Color

Welcome back to Tom’s Tidbits. This is the second blog in a series about color. Now first things first. There are three types of primary colors! You may say, “Aren’t the primary colors red, yellow and blue?” You would be correct if talking about the subtractive system of primary colors. These are the ones that you can observe by mixing paints and by coloring on top of another using crayons. This is the simplest of the systems to understand as it can be seen using common media and is the system that is used in practice in most people’s lives. This system though doesn’t allow you to make a perfect variety of colors. So as it turns out there is a lot more to color than what was taught to you in school or as a young child.

In actually any color can be a primary color. You can choose your primary colors. Pick any three colors to start with and you have a set of primary colors. Now the goal of course is to be able to make as many different colors as possible. Most combinations of your basic colors (red, yellow, blue, orange, green and purple) do not provide a wide set of colors when mixed. You also have to keep in mind that what you mix also makes a difference. So although any three basic colors can be used as primary colors, for best results only three different sets are used.


The subtractive system is the system we use when we paint, and is also the system that we can observe using ordinary items like crayons, markers, etc. It is the system taught in art classes. It is what we are taught when we are young. There are three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. You can’t make these colors. All other colors are made from these colors, etc. There are a few problems with this system though. As mentioned above, it doesn’t allow for the widest variety of colors to be produced. Secondly part of the theory is wrong. The colors black and white cannot be made with crayons, pigments etc. These colors can be made, but we’ll talk more about that later.

There’s a more advanced subtractive system of primary colors that are in use. This system is not used in art class, and you probably won’t use it for painting, but you will see it being used with your computer printer. This more exact subtractive color system still contains yellow as a primary color, but it also includes cyan (instead of blue) and magenta (instead of red). This is the reason why colored ink cartridges come in these three colors instead of red, yellow and blue. The printer will mix them and thus produce all the color you print in your documents, your photos etc. This system also provides you with the most robust variety of color you can achieve using the subtractive system.


There is also an additive primary color system in use. This system mixes colored light together. You can find this system in use in your electronic items like televisions and computers. The primary colors of the additive system are green, blue and red. If you pull up Microsoft Paint on a P.C. for example instead of using one of the colors shown at the top of the screen, you can hit the option edit colors. This brings you to a screen where it allows you to create whatever color you want on the computer. Note that the colors are in terms of green, red and blue. This means that the computer uses the additive system. You can play around with it by entering different values for each of the colors and see what you get.


Secondary colors are quite simpler than primary colors. These are simply the colors you get when you mix two colors together. Remember you will get different results depending on whether you use the additive system or the subtractive systems.

Additive System (light) Subtractive System (paint)

Green + Blue = Cyan Red + Yellow = Orange

Green + Red= Yellow Red + Blue = Purple

Blue + Red= Magenta Yellow + Blue = Green

Note that the secondary colors you learned as a child were again for the subtractive system since you can see them with paint, food coloring, etc. If you were to put a value of 255(the full value of color on a computer) into the slots of any two of the additive primary colors, you’ll get the results like on the left side of the chart.


White and black are two special colors. In pigments of any kind, paint, food coloring, etc., they cannot be made. With light, it’s a different story. Although most people consider black a color, technically it isn’t. It is the absence of color. If you pull up paint again and set the values of all three primary colors to 0, you get black. This proves that black is the absence of color. To make white, set the values all to 255. White is technically all colors mixed together. This is the reason why if you use a prism you can separate white light into all the colors of the rainbow. Though if you simply look at a normal light bulb you’ll only see white, all the other colors are actually in there.


You can also use white and black to lighten and darken colors. Though I would not advise doing this with your crayons, it does work for paint. Back when I was a child (the summer of 1991 to be exact), my parents bought my brother and me a tower house at Triangle, a store similar to the modern day Lowes. Dad was going to paint it pine green. Now if you know anything about pine green it’s a dark shade of green. They made the paint by taking normal green paint and mixing it with black paint. This darkened the shade of green and it produced what is known as pine green. Mixing white with colors normally will lighten the color and give you a pastel shade of the given color. Now keep in mind that sometimes when you mix a color with black or white you actually get a different color.

Pink: Red + White

Lavender: Violet + White

Gray: Black + White

Also, brown is technically dark orange. Though you could darken yellow, you would get a hideous color. I don’t believe yellow is made to be darkened. In one brand of crayons (not Crayola) they actually had crayons named dark red, dark blue, dark green etc. Dark orange was brown and they skipped yellow. There was a dark yellow-orange and it was the most hideous looking color I have ever seen! Too bad I can’t approximate it for you and show it to you!


The color wheel is a way to organize color and shows a picture of how colors are related. There are two types of color wheels one for the additive colors and one for the subtractive colors. The color wheel I will be talking about is the traditional subtractive system color wheel that you would have seen in an art class in school. The color wheel organizes colors. It allows artists and other people working with color to see what colors look good together and what doesn’t. Colors opposite each other on the color wheel are opposite colors. They always make brown when mixed together and they look good together (example red and green are opposites and have been two of the major colors used for Christmas for a long time). The opposite colors are listed below:

Red and Green

Blue and Orange

Yellow and Purple

If you look at a color wheel you will see that there are colors shown between the primary and secondary colors. These are tertiary colors or the colors produced when mixing three colors together. Another way of looking at these colors are mixing a secondary color with one of its related primary colors.

Tertiary Colors:

Green + Blue = Teal (Blue-Green)

Blue + Purple= Violet (Blue-Purple)

Purple + Red = Magenta (Red-Purple)

Red + Orange = Vermilion (Red- Orange)

Orange + Yellow = Amber (Yellow-Orange)

Yellow + Green = Chartreuse (Yellow-Green)

The colors I have listed are exactly in the middle between the secondary color and one of its primary colors. The closer you move from the secondary color to its related primary color the more the color begins to look like the related primary color. An example is teal. Teal is exactly half green and half blue. It would be two parts blue and one part yellow. If you move from teal closer to green, then the shade of teal you are looking at will be more greenish as you are moving closer to the green end. Crayola has a colored pencil named teal green. If you move from teal closer to blue then the color will look bluer. Crayola had a teal blue crayon. As an interesting note, how blue or green teal looks can be affected by having actual blue or green nearby. Teal clothing will appear more blue if comparted to green clothing but more green when compared to blue clothing.

Also of special note is the color violet. Violet and purple are not the same and interchangeable like many people think. Crayola’s basic purple crayon may be named violet with the name purple in parenthesis, but technically it’s still purple. It is not actually violet. Purple is the secondary color made from red and blue that you learned as a child. Violet is tertiary color made from blue and purple. It is the color that Crayola calls Blue-Violet. The key takeaway here is that violet and purple are different colors and not all shades of violet are even purple. Some shades of violet are actually blue!


Another interesting color topic is the concept of warm and cool colors. The term refers to whether the color “projects” warmth or coolness. Warm colors are red, yellow and orange. Things that come in these colors tend to bring a feeling of warmth. Cool colors typically includes blues and grays. They convey a feeling of coolness. Blue for example makes you think about water. Though many people will pair green and purple as cool colors, they are not. They are in between the two classifications. The reason is because they are made up of a warm color and a cool color. Green for example contains yellow (a warm color) and blue (a cool color). A yellow based green may make you think of the sun hitting the grass giving you a warm feeling while a blue based green may make you feel the shade of a forest.

During the intermediate grades at school during art, my class took three days to work with warm and cool colors. The one day my class was only allowed to use warm colors. We were provided with red, yellow, and orange paint so that we could paint a picture using only warm colors. The next period we painted with only cool colors. On the third day we could only use green and purple. I was happy that day and went heavy on the green paint that I had wanted to use since the first day.


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