Reinventing the Wheel: Why Red is not a primary color


Ever had a painting turn to mud when you try to mix colors? The good news is it is not you. Conventional color theory using red, yellow and blue does not work. It will turn your pictures to mud and frustrate you as you struggle to mix colors that are impossible with this color triad. The same goes for the split primary system where you mix with a warm and cool version of each primary. The split primary system works much better than just using the three primaries but it misses the point about how colors really mix and what the true primary colors are. What are the real primary colors? Just ask your printer, Cyan, Yellow, and Magenta. Before you write me off as a heretic, read on, try a few simple color mixing experiments at home with your colored pencils watercolors, opaque paints and see for yourself. By changing the way you think about primary colors, your ability to mix colors will improve overnight. 

the color red-mised from yellow and magenta

Red is not a Primary Color I often see red and blue included in paint sets and on color wheels as a primary color. A bright fire engine red is usually shown as the red and some form of navy blue such as ultramarine stands in for the blue. Neither of these colors are primaries. A few quick tests will prove it. First, let’s mix red from other colors. You will need a clear magenta and a bright yellow. As you start to add magenta to yellow you will see the mixture turn orange, then red. If you can mix red, it is not a primary color.


There are also colors that you can not mix using red. Let’s start with magenta itself. You can not mix the yellow out of red to create magenta. The same is true of hot pink. If you dilute red, either with water or white you do not get pink. You get light red. Hot pink comes from diluted magenta. You can not mix vivid purple by combining red and blue. The combination is a bruise colored dull purple. Vivid purple is the result of combining magenta and cyan (or blue). You need to have a good magenta in your palette. My favorite is Daniel Smith Quinacridone Pink. If you are using prismacolor pencils, the magenta color is called process red (just to add to the confusion).

Blue mixed from magenta and cyan

Blue is Not a Primary Color Either Blue is confusing because many hues get called blue. In this case we are talking about navy blue such as ultramarine. This color can be mixed by combining cyan paint with a little bit of magenta. Greens mixed from yellow and ultramarine make a dull unsaturated green. If you want to mix vivid greens, mix yellow and cyan. Cyan is the color that you need to get comfortable with. If you are using watercolor, Phthalocyanine Blue (GS), also called monastral blue, and phthalo blue is a good cyan. If you are using prismacolor pencils, look for true blue.


Color wheel mixed from Cyan, Magenta and Yellow.

The Real Primary Colors What then are the primary colors? Your color printer knows the answer: cyan, yellow and magenta. These colors mix a bright and clean spectrum. You can mix red, green and blue from these primaries. Orange and violet still  occupy their familiar locations in between red and yellow and blue and magenta respectively. Interestingly enough, the color wheel for light is the is the same as pigment only the primary and secondary colors are reversed. You mix red, blue and green light to create all the other colors.


Why not just call magenta a shade of red and cyan a shade of blue? Those names are already used as the primary colors for light..The primaries for pigments must be distinct to differentiate them from red and blue. Second. we have a clear idea of a hue in our head when when say “red”. Color names become less useful when they are used to describe a larger arc of color across the color wheel. The word blue already has this problem. It is used on the tubes of so many colors of paint that it has lost its spesificity.To preserve the meaning of blue, use it to describe the primary color of light or the consequence of mixing cyan and magenta pigments. It is easier for us all to envision the same color when we say cyan. Just as it would be confusing to describe red as an orangeish violet, describing cyan as a greenish shade of blue makes no sense (both green and blue are secondary colors). Call cyan cyan. Name the color that you mean. Stop describing magenta as an off color of red. Instead call magenta magenta. It is red that is a yellowish magenta.

The problem with the Split Primary Palette Many painters use a split primary palette that has a warm and cool version of each primary color. Here is one example of a split primary palette. Here is an example cool yellow: Hansa yellow light, warm yellow: cadmium yellow or new gamboge, warm red: cadmium scarlet or pyrrole red, cool red: quinacridone carmine or quinacridone rose, warm blue : ultramarine blue, and cool blue: phthalocyanine blue GS.  I think that this just confuses the issue. You can mix  a “warm blue” by combining the cool blue and a little cool red. You can mix a “warm red” by combining the cool red and a little cool yellow. And you can mix a “warm yellow” by combining the cool yellow and a little cool red. So why not just say we have three primaries here that we can use to mix the other colors? There is a very good analysis of the split primary palette on

There is nothing wrong with having more colors on your palette. Even though I can mix red, I still have red on my palette. Just because you can mix more colors from the three primaries does not mean that you need to limit your palette to these colors only. Mixing all your colors from a handful of primaries does not make you more of an artist than someone who uses a larger range of pigments.Get to know the properties of a variety of pigments. Sometimes you will need a staining color. Other times you may want a color that you can wet and lift out more easily. Pigments also vary in lightfastness, granulation, transparency, and intensity. It is great to have a selection of colors to fit the job. Also if you are working in the field it may be very convenient to have more pigments on your palette for faster color matching.

In defense of mud. Finally, there is nothing wrong with “mud”. Many of the colors we see around us are desaturated. If you mix all three primary colors together you will get a muddy or desaturated mixture. This is good and you will find you want to do this all the time. However, when you are trying to keep colors brightly saturated, mix using adjacent primary colors.

Would you like to learn more? See these sites:



Reinventing the Wheel: Why Red is not a primary color — 22 Comments

  1. Jack, what an enormously useful post. I’ve known this for a long time (on an operating level) but have really blundered trying to explain it. I guess I’ve just not been confident enough to tell it like it is! Thanks!

  2. My daughter’s Waldorf school does a lot of painting, starting in kindergarten with yellow, then blue, then red as primary colors. The paints they use are from Germany, and blend to form the familiar secondary colors, unlike any other paints I’ve seen. I haven’t worked with them myself enough to know if their red is closer to magenta, or their blue to cyan.

    • Interesting that you mention Waldorf classrooms. I was in a Waldorf school recently that was using the CMY system for color mixing and doing so successfully. To see how well the two systems work compare a violet made with blue and red vs cyan and magenta. Also see if it is a clean green as you would get with cyan and yellow vs the dull green you get with blue and yellow. If they are indeed using magenta and calling it red, I think this is not helpful. Red is a useful term and we should keep it meaning red. Magenta needs to be in our color mixing vocabulary. The link at the end of the article from the Science Education Foundation is very helpful for teachers. They have great resources for teachers to experiment with and teach this to children.

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  4. Any three equidistant colors of equal saturation can be “primaries”. The differences represented in this article are due to the nature of pigments and the gamut available given the chemistry of those pigments. CMY has more possible colors than RGB. Several systems have been made based on more than 3 primaries, and Polaroid created a system using two. Yes, two. The majority of people who viewed the images said they appeared to be full color. This is based on how we perceive color, our eyes first find the “reddest” possible color in an image than they lock onto the most “violet” color, other colors are interpreted by the brain if not physically present.

  5. This is incredibly useful. When I started painting 30 yrs ago, this is how we were taught. Recently I picked up the brush again when someone gifted me a set of paints. I cringed because it was based on the red, yellow, blue pallete. It is frustrating to not be able to get the colors you know you can get with the magenta, yellow, cyan. I will never understand why they put kits together based on the red, yellow, blue wheel. There ought to be a law.

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  8. Hi what you had said is reasonable but not entirely correct:) The reason why you are saying so is because of the fact that you are using paint t prove your points. On the contrary, use blue red and green LIGHTS instead. On a white screen in a dark room, when u mix the different colors of light by shining them together, you will get the secondary colours magenta cyan and yellow! :) Thus it us certain that red blue green are actually primary colours.

    • Hi there Bing.
      Here is a little more background to consider. There are two systems of primary colors. One for light, one for pigment. These are opposite systems. The more lights you mix the lighter the color becomes. The more pigments you add the darker the colors become. The primary colors of one system create the secondary colors of the other. The primary colors for light are, as you stated RGB that mix to the secondary colors CYM. The primary colors for pigment, CYM, mix to create the secondary colors RGB. It is the same color wheel but the primary colors are reversed. You can read more about this in this post.

      • I completely agree with you, John! Finding the right magenta/s and blues is key to a successful limited palette. I’m a fan of working in colored pencil when I want to play around with an idea and although my brand preference is Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils, I always keep a Prismacolor Process Red at hand because it’s the purest magenta I can find. In watercolor there are several good quinacridones but they will all mix differently with the yellows and cyan-leaning blues, depending on brand so I’ve found it important to experiment and back things up with color charts.

        • Kathleen, I just visited your website. Fantastic watercolor illustrations. I love your work. I recently discovered Faber-Castell Pencils and I love them too. What are your top choices for primaries in Prismacolor and Faber-Castell? For FC pencils my primaries are Phthalo Blue, Fuchsia, and Light Chrome Yellow For Prismacolor I use True Blue, Process Red and Lemon Yellow.

  9. Just came across your post,
    and found it reassuring,
    as I have been using Tom Lynch’s Holbein pac for years:
    Opera, Lemon Yellow, Peacock Blue.
    BTW, the light and pigment systems are not exactly opposite;
    although to mix green, red and yellow in Light, we do come up with white. Pigment: it’s blue, red and yellow to create an almost black.
    This is covered in additive and subtractive theories.
    Try the Holbein set, it is miraculous!

    • Thanks Marcia,
      I would suggest replacing Opera with a Quinacridone based magenta pigment. It will be much more lightfast. Also experiment with how you can make both red and blue from Tom’s primary set. If you can mix red and can mix blue (secondaries), then you can also mix any tertiary colors from the original primaries as well. I will look into Tom Lynch’s work. Thank you for putting him on my radar.

    • Taca, that is a really important question. The key point is that you can not make cyan, magenta, or yellow. You need these colors in your palette. Everything else can be mixed.

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