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Red is not a primary Colour

Updated: Feb 16, 2020

Written by Chris

Or at least not the primary colour we were all taught it was, and why that matters...

On any given day, of any given year in any given place, we can picture the following: a group of younglings are huddled around a table at school, in front of them placed neatly are large glossy pieces of paper and 3 containers of paint. The colours? Red, yellow, and blue. The Big Person in charge proceeds to show the little ones something magical that will affect them forever. The children are directed to take yellow and mix it with the red. Voila! Orange! The same is done with the yellow and blue - abracadabra - green appears! What about the red and blue? The mysterious result is purple!

This exciting moment is described to the miniature artists as colour theory and is explained that red, yellow, and blue are the primaries and when mixed properly, they create the secondaries. And they are told with this system it is possible to get ALL the other colours of the rainbow.

Everyone in attendance eagerly proceeds to make a huge mess, mix a lot of paint, and all end up with a glossy paper completely covered in greyish-brown (with a few spots of actual primary and secondary colours dotting the page). Once dry, these masterpieces will spend the next few weeks adorning the most important gallery space ever invented: the refrigerator door back at home! Children will grow from little to big knowing how colours work and will take this important tool with them into adulthood.

Fast-forward a few years and that youngling artist has developed into the sophisticated, creative, nerdy, you! Painting up your 100th miniature, honing your skills, and of course, cursing the fact that you simply can't mix the vibrant green you want! You know you should be able to mix any colour using primaries, and lighten or shade them with black and white, so why can't you get the bright granny-apple green that you want?

The reason my friend, and I am afraid to say this, is because "you were lied to". Red isn't actually a primary colour!

Let me backtrack. Yes, in some situations it IS considered a primary, just not the primary you think it is. When you are talking about additive theory (also known as RGB - think projected light, TV, Tablet, Phone, projector, etc.) red is used as a primary. But in what is known as subtractive theory (which occurs when printing or mixing paint - also called CMYK) red isn't a true primary. Neither is blue!

But what about my fridge door gallery?

This is where it is important to turn to science to improve art. Do you remember being told that two primaries are needed to create a secondary? You were probably told at the same time that primaries themselves can’t be created by mixing 2 other colours. Your attempts to prove the dumb adult in the room is probably what caused all that greyish brown. No matter in what ratios, you can't take a secondary colour and mix it to get a primary. It is an artistic rule of the Universe!

Well here is the rub: What would you say if I told you that red and blue can actually both be created by combining two other colours? Believe me, it's true!

(insert colour wheel)

To clarify, you simply were not provided with the correct tools in school. If you replace the red and blue that were provided with cyan and magenta, you will, in fact, get a primary colour set with which it is possible to mix both red and blue.

I’ll admit, one of the problems in this situation is that it can come across as a little semantical. The idea of a primary colour can be a little misleading as in reality, you can create any colour system you want and dictate what your primary colours are. However, some are going to be more effective than others, and most won’t give you the full spectrum of colours available. Case in point: a colour system that has yellow, orange, and red as the primaries will only ever be able to produce colours in that limited spectrum. It can still be a system, just not a very good system.

The science of colour begins to explain this glitch by explaining that there are two distinct but related theories when it comes to colour.

The Additive colour theory is based on projected light

Subtractive colour theory is based on reflected light.

It might seem counter-intuitive, but these systems are opposite to each other, even though they may produce the same end result. Additive uses red, blue, and green as its base and these colours are used to create all other colours, however, the secondary colours produced are magenta, cyan and yellow. Subtractive colour theory is reversed, with cyan, magenta, and yellow as primary, and red, green, and blue as secondary.

So why are we still taught red, blue, and yellow in school? Mostly I think because it's easier. Try telling a 4-year old that cyan isn’t blue, or magenta isn’t red mixed with white. Better to simplify the concept so the kids can just paint. And in truth, it’s not that RBY is wrong exactly, more that CMY is better!

It is when you take this imperfect knowledge with you into adulthood that you can run into problems. Our miniature and terrain building can become dull grey and muddy if we continue to use RBY as the further away you get from the pure primaries, the more your colours will tend towards black; becoming less vibrant and lovely. If you start with red and yellow, you will get orange, but because you are already using what can be termed a secondary colour (red) with a primary yellow, you have barely begun and already you are going to end up with less vibrant colour.

By the same token, you simply won't be able to achieve the very vibrant green you want no matter what shade of true blue or yellow you mix, and your tones just don’t quite work as well as your favourite painters.

All these words are to say: next time you go to paint, rather than using red blue and yellow as your primaries, try using magenta, cyan and yellow instead. You will be amazed at how much cleaner and brighter your mixed paint will be!



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