The Primary Problem of Color Theory

By definition, a theory is not a fact. Yet, we often teach color theory as if it were irrefutable: Red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors that make up all other colors. Two primary colors make a secondary color. A primary plus a secondary makes a tertiary. And on it goes.

While this theoretical structure is useful for the organization and manipulation of color, the simple fact is red, yellow, and blue do not make every other color. What we were taught, and what many of us teach our students, is not completely accurate.

mixed paint

I realized this early in my painting career. For me, mixing red with blue produced a browned-down version of violet. Most of us have had this experience and can agree without magenta, having a clean, vibrant violet is impossible.

So Why Do We Insist on Three?

Three seems to be a magic number. We structure a lot of our understanding of art and reality around the concept of a triad. We have three primary colors and group colors into primary, secondary, and tertiary. Of course, there are also warm, cool, and neutral colors. Plus, we perceive reality in three dimensions of length, height, and width. As teachers and artists, we break concepts into line, shape, and form along with value, tone, and hue. There is the “rule of thirds” as well.

Outside the world of Art Ed, our government system, public school institutions, and even many religions use the number three to categorize and describe branches, levels, and concepts. The number three, and multiples of three, have become the fundamental schema from which we develop our understanding of reality.

6 colors

The Importance of Structure

There are different camps in color theory. In both an article and an enlightening podcast interview, Tim Bogatz explores opposing perspectives. Many people feel cyan, magenta, and yellow should be seen as the new primary colors. Other people believe three is not the correct number for primary colors to fully embody the realm of color potential.

Regardless of your point of view, there is value in using the traditional color theory model. Students can grasp the concept of three primary colors making a six or twelve-color wheel. The color wheel provides an understandable model for discussing complementary, analogous, warm, cool, and neutral colors. The color wheel, based on red, yellow, and blue, should not be completely discarded. It can serve as a great way to explain to students one of the many reasons why we call color a theory, not a fact.

containers of paint

Implications

But does it matter which view of primary colors we choose? Is there harm in having multiple primary color combinations? What implications do these color theory debates have for our classrooms? I have heard many art teachers say, “Art is all about breaking the rules.” If this is true, then we must examine and challenge the previously established artistic norms, structures, and knowledge.

Students are always trying to break rules and disprove systemic understandings. When we are open with our students and tell them the primary colors in painting are unable to make every color, then we share a sort of rebellious knowledge. Explaining color is a theory not a fact and there are debates within the artistic community about primary colors, encourages students to make their own analysis and form their own opinions. It is also a way to invite students to challenge other forms of established “truth” humans believe but have yet to prove.

Traditional color theory is incredibly important. It’s valuable to use red, yellow, and blue to help students build basic knowledge. However, showing students how a theory can be challenged is even more important. Thinking creatively about accepted norms and theories is something at which artists excel. Showing our students there is more than one way to think about things will broaden their worldview and increase their capacity for critical thinking. Give your students the ability to question what you teach them. It may open up new avenues of interest and promote the journey of lifelong learning.

Which primary colors do you teach in your classroom?

How else do you teach students to challenge conventional ideas?

Matt Christenson

Matt is a high school visual arts and mural design teacher in San Francisco, CA who strives to cultivate maximum creative potential in all students.

Related

  • Susan Thames

    I teach magenta, cyan, and yellow, but red as a substitute for magenta. I warn students about the slight bit of yellow in red, which produces the browning down of purple. In France all of the art books they had listed magenta, cyan, and yellow as primaries. There was no mention of red. It seems like somewhere along the way Americans dumbed down the color wheel to make it easier to spell. Red, blue, and yellow paint have never mixed beautiful, bright versions of the secondary colors – at least not in my 35 years of using them.

    • artpoet

      I’m with you! Magenta rocks!

    • Matt Christenson

      Hi Susan! I like your insight about how red might just be easier to spell…I might borrow that one for future conversation.

  • Terry Howells

    One is a subtractive system and the other an additive system of colour. They cannot be compared in the way you are suggesting. Colours do not mix as you want due to the cheap pigments you buy. That is why we have Quinacridones and Ultra-marines etc.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hi Terry! Thanks for the comments.

  • keithsawyer

    I was surprised that this post doesn’t point out that “primary colors” don’t exist in nature. They are an artifact of how the human eye is designed. There are three primary colors because our retina has three different types of cones, each of them sensitive to a different frequency. The frequency of light, after all, is linear…Interesting facts about colors and the retina: Different animals have differing numbers of cones, so that some animals see ten or more “primary colors.” We say that dogs are color blind, but that’s because they only have two types of cones.

    • Matt Christenson

      Hello Keith! Thanks for the comments. I actually didn’t think about it like that before, that “primary” colors don’t exist in nature. That makes me think of how roses, then, are not the primary version “red” or that blue jays aren’t the primary version of blue. How do we determine which color qualifies as the official, absolute, neither slightly warm nor slightly cool, version of a primary color? It must ultimately come down to the frequency, right? This subject fascinates me, but I must admit I have a lot of research to do…

  • Mr. Post

    Primary colors are expensive when you buy good quality paints. Other colors are less expensive. Mixing secondary colors from primary colors is like throwing money away – and the colors are crappy.

    I think it is valuable and useful to teach students that the number one color used in most paint mixing is white. That is why they sell larger tubes of white than all of the other colors at the art supply stores. It gets used the most. I also tell students how Home Depot mostly stocks white paint and tints it to make any color a customer will need. Even the word tint can be up for discussion in an art class. Home Depot clerks use the word as it relates to making any color including shades whereas artists may view the word tint as a color made by adding hues to white.

    I discuss how a color wheel works with my students and tell them that colors that are next to each other act like friends – they mix well together. Colors that are directly across from each other don’t get along well. When you mix them together, they have a poopy time and turn brown (I teach elementary age kids – they think anything with the word poop in it is funny). Of course then this brings up the discussion of how to create contrast and naturally one has to talk about how placing the complements NEXT to each other does this. Color is a big topic – it’s easy to overwhelm kids with theory. So I discuss small insights and advice as the subject comes up instead of directly teaching a full blown lesson about color.

    • Matt Christenson

      Thanks for sharing this insight Mr. Post! Before entering the realms of education, I was a “tinter” at a large paint company for a few years. The tinter, as you were writing, is the color matcher…the person responsible for making colors that are as near to identical as possible to a customer sample of anything (like a flower petal or a shirt) using the colorants and paint products at the store. As you know, it is impossible to match every color with only three colors…any three…one can get close, but not quite. We had a color wheel of 12 colorants, combined with the mostly white(ish) paint bases, as well as some primary color bases of red, yellow, and blue for some deeper colors.

      I like how you introduce some of these concepts to the little ones! Seems like they get a little kick out of that…and will most likely remember the reference!

  • Liz

    I think it is important to inform students about color interaction. That is, colors change based on what other colors surround them.

    Using specific limited palettes is not that difficult to teach. It depends upon which combinations of primaries are used.

    I think explaining to students that colors have impurities and change based on the elements of the other colors present in them; sometimes a blue will have yellow (phthalo blues) or a red will have blue (alizeran crimson).

    I’ve seen first hand that students can mix secondary colors using only the primaries. What is critical for students to know is the value of color and its warmth or coolness.

    Show students how colors interact with each other, by using the same hue against different background shades of gray. For me, that was an eye opener in my college color studies classes, when my college professor used a lesson directly out of Josef Albers “Interaction of Color”. We used Color-aid paper. (Obviously, Color-aid paper is just too expensive for a school classroom. Perhaps, color construction paper – or just digital images could be used as a sample for students to see the interaction of color.)

    My high school teacher gave me a limited palette to explore: alizeran crimson (blue red), french ultramarine blue, Prussian blue (phthalo greenish blue) cadmium yellow (medium lemon yellow), zinc white, and burnt umber.

    I have never worried about whether my purple was purple enough, because alizeran crimson and Prussian blue make beautiful shades of purple, or whether my oranges were bright enough or greens were green enough.

    Cadmium red has never been in my palette – it has too much yellow in it for my tastes.

    • Susan Thames

      Fantastic point!

  • Jeremy Creecy

    I teach RBY, but prefer CMY for high school. The colors are more vivid, in my opinion. When it comes to teaching color groups for the young fry, I like to take a laminated color wheel and dry erase marker and pretend it is a cul-de-sac neighborhood. Next door neighbors and neighbors that live across the street from each other do very well together. Neighbors that live caddy-corner to each other might not. There are some really good youtube videos about CMY color that I really like, but I can’t find them right now. Nice article, and good ideas.

  • WendyZcrafts

    I could be completely wrong, but I think some of this stems from whether or not Goethe’s YRMVB or Newton’s ROYGBIV. Then there’s the CMY
    which is used in our modern printing techniques. Fascinating all around!