What are the true primary colors, if not red, yellow and blue?

When you are asked to list the primary colors, you might probably answer: red, yellow, and blue. No wonder because that what was taught to you by your elementary teacher when you became a school coloring book master.

However, in the modern context, all simple concepts are a lot more complicated. People who still deem that red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors, may need to widen their perceptions. Basic color palettes now change depending on the medium you’re using, be it a screen, a computer, print, or fabric.

With that, the definition that would ideally fit primary colors is that they depend on the color model or system they are being employed under. Different sets of colors can be produced from varying basic color palettes under a specific color model. So, red, yellow, and blue would not always be the primary colors.

So, what is a color model? Well, it is generally a system where a minimum of three colors is utilized as primaries to produce new hues. As colors tend to vary with the manner our eyes detect light, the color varies depending on the medium used to reflect it. With that, a specific color model is created for screens, computers, fabrics, and print, so that the preferred output can be attained.

The first model is the RYB model, which is the classical system used and what was taught to us in art classes. It traces back to the 17th century and serves as the foundation of classical color theory. As its name suggests, the model utilized red, blue, and yellow to be its basic color palettes. It is the system used in painting and designs, wherein its secondary colors are orange, purple, and green.

The second model is the light system or RGB color model that uses red, green, and blue as its primary colors. It is employed on producing colors through light sources. This model is what we see on screens of tablets, smartphones, televisions, and computers. They are created through RGB light waves and put together in varying combinations and amounts to produce different colors

For example, a computer pixel actually utilizes RGB light at different intensities. These pixels then play with your eye and mind, allowing you to perceive different mixes of colors far beyond the primary color palette. The more the pixels a screen has, the higher quality of colors it can display. With that, the RGB system serves as the foundation of different forms of digital media.

Lastly, the third system is the CMYK model or also known as the print model. The abbreviation stands for the following basic color palette: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key or black. This CMYK works by printing and mixing these primary colors on a white surface to create different colors.

Moreover, the system uses the subtractive approach, which means the color pigments present in ink deduct specific light waves from the reflection to produce new colors. 

First, you need to remember the color opposites of each pigment. Cyan contrasts red, magenta contrasts green, and yellow contrasts blue. For instance, yellow would subtract blue but would reflect both red and green. Or, if you mix cyan and yellow, green will be derived as both red and blue would be subtracted.

If you look at printers, you can find the cyan, magenta, and yellow inks. However, black ink is also added as combining all three pigments will only produce a dark brown color. But, adding black ink to the three primary colors will allow you to get pure black. Today, the CMYK system is the color model used for all printers.

More Readings

Primary Color (Wikipedia)

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