Primary Colors: A Guide to the Foundation Of Color Theory

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Primary colors are the foundation of all other colors! Or put another way, they are like building blocks on which all other colors that we see and use are created. Without the primary colors, we wouldn’t be able to create all the hundreds of thousands of other colors that are around us. Isn’t it incredible to think that just a few colors have the power to create so many wonderful and captivating colors?

In this article, we are going to go over exactly what primary colors are along with how they vary according to different color models. We’ll also look at where primary colors are found on the color wheel and the psychology and meaning behind them.

Let’s begin!

What are Primary Colors?

There are two criteria that make a specific color a primary color.

  1. Primary colors cannot be created by mixing other colors together.
  2. Primary colors are used to create all other colors.

In traditional color theory, there are three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. However, nowadays there are other color models which have different primary colors. Let’s take a look at each of them.

For a full breakdown and explanation of different color models and how they work, check out our complete color model guide.

Three Color Models And Their Primary Colors

There are three color models that are commonly used today. Each of the three color models is used in specific industries or applications to create the colors that are needed.

RYB Color Model: The Primary Colors In Art (Pigment)

The RYB color model is the most well-known color model and if you took art at school this is the model you will know! RYB is used in traditional art and as mentioned it has three primary colors:

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

Red
#FF0000
RGB(255,0,0)

Yellow
#FFFF00
RGB(0,255,0)

Blue
#0000FF
RGB (0,0,255
)

The RYB color model uses pigments such as paints to create all other colors. By mixing different amounts of red, yellow, and blue together you can create every other color that you need.

And when you mix all three primary colors together you will eventually get a very dark brown or muddy color. This is because the RYB color model is known as a “Subtractive Color Model“.

Subtractive colors are created when pigments subtract or absorb some or all light.

Related:
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75+ Blue Color Codes To Help You Choose The Best Shades Of Blue

RGB Color Model: Primary Colors Of Light (Digital Design)

The RGB color model is used when light is being used to create specific colors.

You may not be aware of it but the RYB color model is used in every electronic or digital display that you use every day! Things like computer monitors, mobile devices, and televisions all use the RGB color model to create the colors you see on your screen.

The RGB color model also has three primary colors. These are:

  • Red
  • Green
  • Blue

Red
#FF0000
RGB(255,0,0)

Green
#00FF00
RGB(0,255,0)

Blue
#0000FF
RGB (0,0,255
)

By using different amounts of red, green, and blue light you can create any other color that you would like.

And if you mix all three colors together at their full intensity you will end up with pure white light! This is because the RGB color model is known as an “Additive Color Model” which means that colors are created by adding light.

Related: 50+ Gorgeous Shades Of Green For An Inspiring Website And Brand

CMYK Color Model: The Primary Colors In Printing

The CMYK color model is specifically used in printing where ink is used to create every color that you need (just like the RYB color model, the CMYK model is also a subtractive color model).

In this model, there are three primary colors plus black. These are the CMYK primary colors:

  • Cyan
  • Magenta
  • Yellow
  • Black

Cyan
#00FFFF
RGB(0,255,255)

Magenta
#FF00FF
RGB(255,0,255)

Yellow
#FFFF00
RGB (255,255,0
)

Black
#000000
RGB (0,0,0
)

It is important to know that the CMYK color model is used in printing if you want to print your digital designs with the best possible color quality.

You will find that if you create a design on your computer, it will most likely use the RGB color model. When you take this design and print it as is, the colors may appear muted and dull.

To avoid this, you would need to convert your design to the CMYK model so that the colors are correct when printing. This is incredibly important to know especially if you are having any type of professional printing done.

RYB Primary Colors vs RGB Primary Colors

In this article, we are going to look at the most commonly used primary colors, those that are used in art (pigments) and those that are used in digital design (light).

RYB Primary Colors On The Color Wheel

As the name suggests, the color wheel is a circular representation of all the colors that we can see.

Colors on the color wheel are arranged in a specific order to highlight the relationships between them and how to use them.

The color wheel is incredibly helpful when choosing colors and combing colors to make new colors. It is also incredibly helpful if you are creating color palettes and you aren’t sure what colors go well together.

The primary colors are spread out evenly around the color wheel. This is where they are positioned:

RYB Primary Colors On the Color Wheel
RYB Primary Colors On The Color Wheel

What Is The Difference Between The RYB Color Wheel And The RGB Color Wheel?

Excellent question! If you are working with light and digital displays, the color wheel is different and, the way you blend colors is also different. Let’s start with what the RGB color wheel looks like:

RGB Primary Colors On The Color Wheel
RGB Primary Colors On The Color Wheel

As you can see, the yellow in the RYB color wheel is replaced with green in the RGB color wheel.

Why is this important?

This difference is very important when it comes to mixing colors.

For example, if you wanted to create green in the RYB color model, you would mix blue and yellow together exactly like they taught you at school!

However, in the RGB color model, you already have green but no yellow! So what would you do if you wanted to create yellow? You would simply mix red and green light together. Interesting right?

But don’t let this confuse you! The RGB Color model has a nifty way of specifying exactly what color is being displayed on your screen: Hex Color Codes And RGB Values.

How RGB Colors Are Displayed

The RGB color model uses RGB values and hex color codes to specify exactly what color is being used or created so you don’t need to worry about trying to remember which colors are mixed with which colors to create the color you need!

Both these color codes are really easy to use and you will find that all programs that work with color will allow you to specify the colors you want using these codes.

How Do RGB Values And Hex Color Codes Work?

Simply put, RGB values and hex color codes tell us exactly how much red, green, and blue are within a specific color and they are displayed in the following formats:

  • RGB Values: RGB(RR,GG,BB)
  • Hex Color Codes: #RRGGBB

RGB values use numbers between 0 and 255 to specify the intensity of a color, zero being no intensity and 255 meaning the color is completely saturated.

Likewise, hex codes use numbers and letters with 0 being no intensity and the letter “F” being fully saturated.

For example, if you wanted to use or create red, your RGB value would be RGB(255,0,0) and the hex code would be #FF0000.

Mixing Primary Colors

The magic of primary colors is their ability to create an endless number of other colors simply by mixing them together.

When you mix primary colors together in equal amounts you create three secondary colors. And when you mix these secondary colors together with primary colors you create six different tertiary colors!

RYB Primary Colors

In the traditional RYB color model, these are the secondary and tertiary colors that are created:

  • Primary Colors: Red, Yellow, Blue
  • Secondary Colors: Orange, Green, Purple / Violet
  • Tertiary Colors: Red-Orange, Yellow-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green, Blue-Violet, Red-Violet

RYB Primary Colors That Make Green

In the RYB color model, you combine blue and yellow to create green.

Blue
#0000FF

Yellow
#FFFF00

Green
#00FF00

RYB Primary Colors That Make Orange

Likewise, you would combine red and yellow to create orange.

Red
#FF0000

Yellow
#FFFF00

Orange
#FFA500

RYB Primary Colors That Make Purple / Violet

And finally, combine blue and red to create purple / violet.

Blue
#0000FF

Red
#FF0000

Purple/Violet
#8F00FF

Related:
The Complete Violet Color Guide
75+ Orange Color Codes To Add Energy & Warmth To Your Website

RGB Primary Colors

Just like the traditional RYB color model, the RGB color model also has three secondary colors and six tertiary colors that are created when different colors of light are combined:

  • Primary Colors: Red, Green, Blue
  • Secondary Colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow
  • Tertiary Colors: Orange, Chartreuse Green, Spring Green, Azure, Violet, Rose

RGB Primary Colors That Make Cyan

In the RGB color model, you combine blue and green to create cyan.

Blue
#0000FF

Green
#00FF00

Cyan
#00FFFF

RGB Primary Colors That Make Magenta

To create magenta, you need to combine blue and red light.

Red
#FF0000

Blue
#0000FF

Magenta
#FF00FF

RGB Primary Colors That Make Yellow

And finally, yellow is created by combining green and red light.

Green
#00FF00

Red
#FF0000

Yellow
#FFFF00

Primary Colors Meaning & Psychology

It is important to understand the meaning and psychology behind primary colors because they are a great way to communicate subconscious messages to your audience without using words.

For a full breakdown of the psychology of color and how it affects moods and how it makes people feel, don’t forget to check out our article titled Colors And Emotions – The Best Colors For Your Website And Branding“.

The Meaning of Red

Red flowers in the primary red color
Image: Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

Red is a color that tends to evoke strong emotions! Not only is it bold and bright but it is known to even increase appetite which is why you will just about always see fast food restaurants use red in their branding!

Here are a few more points about red’s meaning and psychology:

  • Red symbolizes passion, love, and intensity.
  • Signifies danger and is often used in warning signs.
  • Represents courage, power, and energy.
  • Creates a sense of urgency.
  • Demands attention and is eye-catching.
  • Increases the heart rate.
  • Red is a warm color.

The Meaning of Yellow

Yellow flower displaying the yellow primary color
Image: Ferenc Barna from Pixabay

Yellow is a beautiful color that is associated with warmth, sunshine, and happiness! But that’s not all, it is also known for the following amazing qualities:

  • Yellow creates a positive outlook encouraging joy and cheerfulness.
  • Promotes optimism.
  • Creates feelings of confidence and enthusiasm.
  • Stimulates creativity and concentration.
  • Represents knowledge and enlightenment.
  • Yellow is a warm color.

The Meaning of Blue

Blue water drops featurin g the blue primary color
Image: InspiredImages from Pixabay

Blue is a color that many people associate with the ocean, the sky, and a sense of tranquility and calm. You can take advantage of these qualities by including blue on your website or in your banding. However, blue is also known for the following:

  • Blue represents peace and stability.
  • Symbolizes loyalty, trust, and reliability (which is why you will often see it in logos and branding for financial institutions).
  • Has a calming and soothing effect on both the body and the mind.
  • Reduces stress.
  • Encourages openness and communications
  • Creates feelings of harmony and balance.
  • Blue is a cool color.

The Meaning of Green

Green plant featuring the primary color green
Image:Bkrmadtya Karki from Pixabay

Since we have focussed on the primary colors for both the RGB and RYB color models, it wouldn’t be right to not include green!

Just like blue, green is also a color that many associate with nature, and that brings with it feelings of calm and tranquility. It is a refreshing color that is also known for the following:

  • Green symbolizes growth and renewal.
  • Promotes balance and stability.
  • Represents abundance and harmony.
  • Symbolizes physical and emotional healing.
  • Is linked to environmental sustainability and awareness.
  • Green is a cool color.

Conclusion

Primary colors play an incredibly important role in the way in which every other color we see is created. By understanding what primary colors are we gain a solid understanding of how color works, how it impacts our emotions and lives, and of course how we can use it to our advantage in our branding and on our websites.

In our next article, we are going to take a closer look at Secondary Colors so join me there!

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