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Tertiary Colors: Wait, There are TWO Definitions?!

In all my years as an artist and teacher, I never got a surprise quite like the one when I began my color mixing experiments and realized that there are two TOTALLY different definitions for the term “tertiary colors!” How is that possible?! Let’s investigate.

Definition 1: Primary + Adjacent Secondary

The first definition of the term “tertiary colors” refers to the colors on a color wheel that sit between primary and secondary colors that are next to each other, or adjacent. This is the same definition as the term “intermediate colors.”

I’ve drawn this concept graphically in my illustration below, upon which I’ve labeled red, yellow, and blue “1” for primary (in the RYB color system), and I’ve put a “2” label for secondary on orange (red and yellow, green (yellow and blue), and purple (what red and blue make). The colors labeled “3” are the tertiary colors by this definition. But what are they each called? Get psyched for exciting names.

Tertiary Colors
Tertiary Colors: Definition 1.

What are the 6 Tertiary Colors?

By this first definition, there are six tertiary colors, and they are:

  1. Vermilion: Red-Orange
  2. Amber: Yellow-Orange
  3. Chartreuse: Yellow-Green
  4. Teal: Blue-Green
  5. Violet: Blue-Purple
  6. Magenta: Red-Purple

Notice that when we use the intermediate colors definition of “tertiary colors,” the results are all bright, happy, and bold pigment results from the mix. Why? Because by this method, we are creating a new color by combing two parts of one primary color and one part of another primary color — and completely excluding the third primary color. (For example, vermilion is actually red plus red plus yellow, with no blue.)

This exclusion of one primary color is the key to brightness, since all three primaries together creates muddy neutrals like gray, brown, and black. Speaking of that, let’s move to the other — totally different definition.

Definition 2: Secondary + Secondary

I swear I’m not lying to you — the Merriam-Webster dictionary itself backs me up that the second definition of “tertiary color” is: the color resulting from mixing two secondary colors together. WHAT?!

Now we have a mind-blowingly different answer to how many tertiary colors there are, and what they’re called. Moreover, this set isn’t bright at all, because each is a mix of all three primary colors, since two secondary ones contain all three. (For example, orange plus green is actually red plus yellow plus yellow plus blue.)

What are the 3 Tertiary Colors?

By this second definition, there are three tertiary colors, and they are the following muddy brown-gray neutrals:

  1. Olive (orange plus green): a brownish-green.
  2. Brown (purple plus orange): can be a reddish brown or dusty pink.
  3. Slate (green plus purple): a muted grayish-blue.

Let’s now look at more in-depth drawings and articles of mine about these two utterly disparate ways of defining the term.

Tertiary Colors

There are two different definitions of the term "tertiary colors." Which were YOU taught?

Tertiary Colors Definition 2: Secondary + Secondary

The second definition of tertiary colors is totally different. In this framework, tertiary colors are the muddy neutrals (gray-browns) formed by mixing two secondary colors together.

Tertiary Colors, in Sum

I’m so curious to hear in the comments section: Which of these two definitions of “tertiary colors” were YOU taught? Which do you think makes the most sense to use, and why? Do share!

Want more? Check out “What Colors Make Brown?”