What Are Primary, Secondary and Tertiary Colors?

Color wheel with primary, secondary and tertiary colors

Colors might seem simple when you first look at them, but upon closer inspection, there are deeper depths and complexities to each hue and shade. If you want to understand everything about colors, it’s important to start at the beginning and break down the basics: primary, secondary, and tertiary colors.

Primary colors are easy to spot, but we also look at secondary and tertiary colors daily. For those of you with a more creative side, you know how important it is to comprehend the colors in order to get the results you want, whether you’re designing clothes or creating a painting. Let’s take a look at each individual color category to learn more.

Primary Colors

Primary colors highlighted on color wheel

If you’ve taken an art class in school, then you probably recognize that primary colors are your building blocks, so to speak. They’re the parents for the other colors on the color wheel, and these colors are the following when using the RYB model: redyellow, and blue.

The reason these three are known as primary colors is due to the fact that you can’t get them by mixing any other color. They stand on their own and are used when trying to create additional colors in the next two categories we’ll discuss.

Typically, when you blend the three together, you should get closer to black color. Of course, this depends on whether you have a pure red, a pure yellow, and a pure blue, which is not always easy to discern when it comes to painting or other coloring artwork styles.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors highlighted on color wheel

When you think about secondary colors, remember that they are second in line with primary colors. We said that primaries are like parents, then that would make secondary colors their direct children. You get a secondary color by mixing two primary colors.

As you’re taught about color theory, you’ll learn that you should use equal parts of the primary colors in order to succeed at getting the secondary colors. Things can change drastically if you add too much or too little of one color, and by then, you aren’t left with a true secondary color.

Again, using the RYB model, secondary colors consist of the following: orangepurple, and green.

Color Combinations to Get Secondary Colors

In order to get true secondary colors, you combine these primary colors:

Orange: Blend red and yellow together.

Purple: Blend red and blue together.

Green: Blend yellow and blue together.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors highlighted on color wheel

Lastly, you have your tertiary colors. To understand what they’re about, you merely have to focus on the word “tertiary”. As it means third in place, when looking at the color wheel, you’ll go for the set of colors after the secondary ones.

To keep up with our earlier analogy of parent and child colors, tertiary colors can be referred to as the grandchildren of primary colors and the children of secondary colors.

To get tertiary colors, you have to mix a primary and a secondary color. This is essentially including more of the primary color than you originally did when creating the secondary color. You typically blend the primary color with its nearest secondary color.

Of course, too much or too little can alter what color you are intending to reach, so it’s another area where you should take care of how much you’re using when you’re mixing the likes of paints, markers, etc.

When it comes to color theory, there are six main tertiary colors: blue-greenyellow-greenred-orangered-purpleblue-purple, and yellow-orange.

You may also notice these combinations referred to with more personalized names: teal, chartreuse, vermilion, magenta, violet, and amber.

Color Combinations to Get Tertiary Colors

To get true tertiary colors, you mix these primary and secondary colors:

Blue-Green (Teal): Blend blue with green.

Yellow-Green (Chartreuse): Blend yellow and green.

Red-Orange (Vermilion): Blend red and orange.

Red-Purple (Magenta): Blend red and purple.

Blue-Purple (Violet): Blend blue and purple.

Yellow-Orange (Amber): Blend yellow and orange.

Final Thoughts

Although there are a host of colors out there to play around with, understanding the basics of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors gets you the root education you need in order to successfully use all those colors. From there, you can broaden your artistic side and dive into the deeper world of color.