What Are Intermediate Colors and How Are They Made?

Color palette with intermediate colors

Intermediate colors allow you to create unique color combinations and different types of hues. In order to understand how to make intermediate colors, you first need to know how they fit on the color wheel and their relationship to primary and secondary colors. In a nutshell, you can make intermediary colors with a primary color and secondary color adjacent to it on the color wheel.

Before we go into the depths of intermediate color theory, here is a quick overview.

Mixing a primary color (red, yellow, and blue in the RYB color model) with another primary color in equal proportions gives you secondary colors. There are three secondary colors: purple, orange and green.

So, how do you get intermediate colors?

Intermediate colors are created by mixing a primary color with a secondary color. For example, you can mix yellow and orange to produce the intermediary color yellow-orange. You can mix red and purple together to get the intermediary color red-purple.

You might be wondering how to remember the naming combination order. If you can remember the primary colors, it’s much easier. Primary colors of red, blue and yellow are always listed first, followed by the secondary color mixed to produce an intermediary hue. Then, simply separate the two with a hyphen and you have the right color combination.

Using a Color Wheel

12-part color wheels with primary, secondary, and intermediate colors

If you have a 12-part color wheel, intermediate colors fall halfway between primary and secondary colors. Of course, it gets more complicated as more hues appear on a color chart. However, using a 12-part color wheel that only includes primary, secondary and intermediary colors is the best way to understand the relationship of these important color groups.

On a 12-part color wheel, the different types of color are typically notated. If they aren’t, it’s easy to mark them yourself. For example, you could write #1 on the primary colors, #2 on the secondary colors and #3 on intermediary colors.

A six-part color wheel will not contain intermediate colors. Comparing a 6-part color wheel with a 12-part color wheel can help you clearly see the difference between primary, secondary and intermediary colors.

Intermediate Colors of Light

Different wavelengths make up the electromagnetic spectrum. Technically, visible colors are defined as light waves between 400 nm to 700 nm. One nanometer (nm) equals one billionth of a meter.

The visible spectrum of light with wavelengths from 400nm to 700nm

There are two theories for reproducing color: additive and subtractive color mixing. It’s important to understand the difference between additive and subtractive colors. Intermediate colors are additive. To get them, you combine colors. In subtractive color theory, adding two subtractive primary colors together creates an additive primary color.

Although red, yellow and blue are the base primary colors for RYB, the human eye cares more about red, green and blue (RGB), the primary colors of vision and light. Mixing the three additive primary colors produces additive secondaries, but these are also the subtractive primary colors cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY):

  • Red and green produce yellow
  • Blue and green make cyan
  • Red and blue create magenta

Now you have secondary colors of light. After overlapping secondary colors, you can create intermediary colors.

Intermediate Colors in Painting and Art

Mixing intermediate colors with watercolor brush strokes

Whether you’re considering an inkjet cartridge or an artist dabbing pigments together in a studio, intermediate colors are critical in painting and art. Color gives dimension to art and may even serve as the primary vehicle to express emotions and themes.

As with many other things, practice makes perfect. In order to achieve intermediate colors, it takes more than mixing the right amounts of paint together. For example, thoroughly mixing the paint for consistency gives you even color coverage and intensity. Even the choice of paintbrush determines how evenly the mixed colors will spread across the canvas or other medium.

At first, it takes a lot of trial and error to get the colors right. Then, it takes practice to reproduce consistent results. However, the best way to explore color is by learning how to create it from its components. That way, you won’t end up with muddy grays or browns unless you mean to.

Examples of Intermediate Colors

By now, you should have a clear understanding of what intermediate colors actually are. You understand how to make secondary colors out of primary colors and intermediary colors out of primary and secondary combinations.

Try your hand at creating texture and interest in your artwork by creating these intermediary (or intermediary-based) colors:

  • Red + yellow = orange
  • Blue + cyan = azure
  • Orange + green = citron
  • Purple + blue = violet
  • Yellow + orange = amber
  • Orange + red = vermilion
  • Red + purple = magenta
  • Orange + purple = russet
  • Purple + green = olive
  • Blue + green = teal
  • Magenta + red = purple
  • Green + yellow = chartreuse

Creating intermediate or intermediate-based tones is a real job for many artists. Start with one color and slowly merge in another to play with various hues. This will help you improvise your artistic skills and make you more comfortable when choosing colors for your canvas – whether that’s an actual canvas or your living room wall.

Different Ways to Classify Colors

We have already discussed primary colors, which are the basis of all other color combinations. Traditionally, red, yellow and blue (RYB) were considered the primary colors of painting. However, other color models are used for different mediums due to how the eye perceives color. As mentioned earlier, red, green and blue (RGB) is used for media that transmits light, such as televisions and computer screens.

These different mediums and color models are the reason for all the conflicting answers you’ll find online about how intermediate colors are made. The reality is that every answer is correct; it just depends on which medium you’re using to mix the colors.

Complementary Colors

It’s also important to understand how complementary colors work. When you want to add interest but maintain harmony, you can mix colors from opposite sides of the color wheel. This includes mixing blue and orange, yellow and purple, and red and green. Only here, we don’t mean mixing them to form new color combinations, although you can do that too. Placing these colors next to each other or using them on the same palette can add intensity and drama without ruining the continuity of your painting or design.

Ice cream bars in different complementary colors

Warm Vs. Cool Colors

Understanding the difference between warm versus cool colors can help you achieve the impact you’re looking for. Intermediary colors play a key role in producing a warm, cozy vibe or a cooler, more distant one. Fortunately, these concepts are relatively easy since you can associate them with different sides of the color wheel.

The colors on the red side of a color wheel are warm colors. Meanwhile, the green side contains cooler colors. As far as color theory goes, these definitions are absolute. However, you can achieve more subtle effects by choosing colors in the middle of these broader definitions. To make things a little more complicated, you can make specific hues warmer or cooler depending on what tones you add to them.

Many studies have shown that color temperatures can have a perceptual and psychological impact on people viewing them. Here is a general guideline used by everyone from interior designers to clothing designers as well as artists, architects and consumers:

  • Warm colors: red, orange, yellow and mixtures of those hues. Viewers often perceive warm colors as appearing closer.
  • Cool colors: blue, green, purple as well as combinations of these colors. Cool colors often appear further away from an observer.

It’s important to understand that some colors can take on the attributes of both warm and cool parts of the spectrum. For example, greens can add warmth when they contain more yellow, or coolness when they contain more blue. Similarly, you can add warmth to purple by blending in more red than blue.

Warm and cool primary, secondary, and intermediate colors

What Is a Tertiary Color?

There are different definitions for tertiary colors. In the RYB color model, tertiary colors do not appear on the 12-part color wheel. Here, tertiary colors are the mixture of two secondary colors. This is the definition commonly applied to painting.

However, even though they don’t appear on the simplest color charts, they can be very important when mixing pigments.

Examples of RYB Tertiary Colors:

  • Slate (green + purple)
  • Russet (purple + orange)
  • Citron (orange + green)

What Is the Difference Between Intermediate and Tertiary Colors?

The difference is that in the RYB color model, tertiary colors do not appear on the color wheel. Instead, the colors between primary and secondary hues are intermediate colors, as discussed above.

However, the term “intermediary” is used interchangeably with “tertiary” when using the RGB and CMYK color models.

So there is a difference between the two terms when using the RYB color model, but intermediate and tertiary colors are the same for the RGB and CMYK color models.

Using Intermediate Colors in Branding

Different cover designs using intermediate colors

Many marketers and designers choose shades of primary or secondary colors for their brands. Adding other colors isn’t always popular because it can confuse the brand messaging and attract less attention from consumers. However, choosing intermediate colors for branding can actually help products and services stand out. You can also achieve far more precise emotions and associations with intermediary colors than primary or secondary ones.

Hue is the primary component of color and defines how your eye perceives individual colors such as red, blue, green, purple etc. It is important to consider the intensity of a particular color. For example, pastels are often perceived as duller than pure hues.

Here are a few color meanings to keep in mind when choosing colors for branding purposes:

  • Blue: Security, Trust, Loyalty, Responsibility
  • Turquoise: Compassion, Calmness, Clarity, Communication
  • Green: Harmony, Safety, Growth, Health
  • Red: Action, Strength, Energy, Passion
  • Yellow: Happiness, Optimism, Positivity, Intellect
  • Pink: Compassion, Love, Femininity, Playfulness
  • Purple: Spirituality, Mystery, Royalty, Imagination
  • Orange: Emotion, Youth, Optimism, Enthusiasm
  • Brown: Reliability, Stability, Honesty, Comfort
  • Gray: Compromise, Neutral, Control, Practical
  • Black: Protection, Power, Elegance, Sophistication
  • White: Cleanliness, Purity, Innocence, Perfection

Intermediary colors hold color symbolism from different hues and allow you to create precise associations in your branding. Avoiding the intensity of primary or secondary colors can also set your brand apart since many companies choose these to attract attention.

Now, you have a thorough understanding of the impact of intermediate colors and know how to produce them. You also understand when and how to use them for various applications, including artwork, advertising, and design. The best way to master the mixing or use of intermediate colors is to try your hand at creating them yourself.