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Secondary Colors, and Primary Surprises!

For anyone interested in color mixing exploits like me, there’s an essential question to answer: What are secondary colors, and which primary colors make each? The answer is actually surprisingly complex.

As background, my name is Lillie, and I’m an artist and teacher who delights in experimenting with combining colors — exploring everything from what purple and green make, to the odd mix blue plus orange. In the process of hand-drawing these illustrations and researching each article, I realized: Despite my years of experience, there’s a TON about color theory that is shockingly unexpected!

In particular, it turns out that the primary colors we all learned about in elementary school for drawing — red, yellow, and blue — are NOT the only system of primary colors. By extension, orange, green, and purple (or violet) are not the only secondary colors! Huh? Let’s elaborate.

Secondary colors
Primary and secondary colors, illustrated.

RYB vs. RGB vs. CMYK

The traditional paint and pigment model of color theory has that the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue, so the system is abbreviated as the RYB model. This model still works fine if you’re mixing inks as I am in these illustrations or cute drawings. Now ready for your mind to be blown?

Next comes the RGB model, which is an additive model used in light and with digital screens. With RGB, the primary colors are red, green, and blue, and all three combine to form white! In this system, the secondary colors are: yellow (red + green), cyan (a light blue formed by green + blue), and magenta (a pink-purple made by red + blue). Whoa!

Then we come to the CMYK model, used in printing. In CMYK, the primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. With CMYK, the secondary colors are: red, green, and blue (the opposite of the RGB model). For example, in this model, the answer to “What colors make green?” is yellow and cyan. This is a subtractive model, meaning that the CMY primary colors come together to form a dark color close to black, but not quite black. Because printers need real black, they added blacK into the mix as the “K” in CMYK.

Phew! That’s a lot of wild new information for most of us, eh? Never fear — in the rest of this article, we will be sticking with the tried and true RYB system, as we unpack how to make each of the three secondary colors. I’ll also dive a bit into the color meanings of each, based on my work in aura and chakra colors as a Reiki practitioner. Enjoy!

Secondary Colors

What are the secondary colors, in the RYB model where red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors? See illustrations and explanations here, along with the meaning of each secondary color.

Primary and Secondary Colors

I hope you now have a nice background in the primary and secondary colors in the RYB model, plus their meanings, with regards to the chakra and aura colors system. Which color (or colour, if you’re British) is YOUR favorite? I’m always partial to purple and green, myself.

If you’re ready to take your color exploits to the next level, click over to see what happens when you mix primary and secondary colors together to form intermediate colors! Mmm… so bright and pretty. If you want to get even more complex, learn about the two different definitions of tertiary colors. Happy color mixing!

Want more? Check out “Why Is Art Important?” and “Easy Drawing Ideas,” plus “8 Benefits of Drawing.”