Primary Colours in Art

The traditional colour wheel chart implies that any red, yellow and blue are primary colours, but this is not the case.  Knowing how to mix colours for painting entails firm knowledge on what the true primary colours are.

Primary Colours and Secondary Colours

Many art textbooks exhibiting the traditional colour wheel will mislead the colour mixer into thinking that any red and yellow will produce a vibrant orange; any blue and red will produce a vibrant purple, and any blue and yellow will produce a vibrant green. Disappointment with the resultant colours will leave the colour mixer asking the question how such muddy colours could have happened?

What are the Primary Colours?


The answer to this question is that not any red, yellow or blue is a primary colour. French Ultramarine, for instance, contains a lot of violet; cadmium red contains a lot of yellow and cadmium yellow is biased towards red. It is little wonder, then, that if ultramarine blue and cadmium red were mixed together, the resultant colour will be greyish rather than a vibrant violet. This could cause frustration when painting flowers.


The Colour Wheel Chart


The trouble is, that any given red, yellow or blue would appear vibrant when applied neat. The impurities only become evident when mixed with another apparent primary colour. The true primary colours are those that are used in printing ink, and are known as, magenta, yellow and cyan. Unfortunately, these colours are not always similarly labelled on the tubes of artists' paint.
To further confuse matters, some paint tubes are labelled “magenta,” but are not the primary colour magenta used in printing ink. The best way to find out what the primaries of oil paint are, is to obtain a colour chart and to try to find the closest match. Permanent rose, pthalo blue and cadmium yellow (pale) are quite close to the mark and have high tinting strength.

Read more about color behavior on my other site

Science of color


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Step by step oil painting demonstrations

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Primary Colour Mixing


Mixing any two of the colours mentioned (permanent rose, cadmium yellow (pale) and pthalo blue) will produce vibrant colours mixes and clean secondary colours. It might be worth noting, however, that the purity of the pigment within paint will never match the purity of scattered light; the impurity will always exist, no matter how small. Only a close approximation can be achieved. 

Paint Mixing Scheme


When presented with magenta, one might notice that is has a pinkish hue rather than the red one mostly associates with a primary colour. When mixed with yellow, the magenta will become red. For this reason, red is not a primary colour at all, but a secondary colour. It will follow that orange is not a secondary colour but a tertiary colour, for it requires the mixture of red (a secondary colour) and yellow (a primary colour) to achieve it.

The glossary below will clarify the terms used in colour mixing.


Colour Theory Basics

The glossary of colour terms given below will help clarify the meaning.
Primary Colour: A colour that cannot be achieved by the mixture of two other colours. It is the most important colour within the artists’ palette. In printing ink, these are: magenta, cyan and yellow. In terms of oil paint, permanent rose, cadmium yellow (pale) and pthalo blue are quite close.


Secondary colour: A colour that can be achieved by the mixture of two primaries. Red is not in fact a primary colour, but a secondary. The secondary colours therefore are, red, green and violet.


Tertiary colour. A colour that can be achieved by the mixture of a primary and a secondary. Orange is not a secondary colour, but a tertiary colour.


This site comprise of pictures and excerpts taken from my two art instruction books. Oil Paintings from Your Garden can be purchased direct from the author via this site, or through Amazon.


My other book, Oil Paintings from the Landscape can be purchased direct from Amazon.


© Rachel Shirley 2010