What Are Secondary Colors and How Are They Created?

Illustration of RGB and RYB secondary colors

Color is a curious thing. Different eyes see it different ways. Likewise, what we learned in grammar school art class about primary and secondary colors is open to differing definitions. One thing we can say for certain is that secondary colors are derived from primary colors.

Understanding where secondary colors come from is important to art and design. What must be understood is that media makes a difference. In dealing with pigments, there is one set of primary colors most of us are familiar with. Secondary colors are derived from them. But if you’re working in the light spectrum, the primary colors are different. That means secondary colors are different as well.

Creating Secondary Colors of Pigment

RYB primary colors red, yellow, blue and secondary colors orange, green, purple

The basis of all secondary colors are the three primary colors you are starting with. Secondary colors are created by combining two of the primary colors. In the art world, where pigments are the medium, blue and yellow are combined to make green. Blue and red are combined to make purple. Lastly, yellow and red make orange. Green, purple and orange are all secondary colors in this case.

A rule of thumb with secondary colors is to mix equal parts of the combined primary colors. This creates a pure hue that can then be adjusted with white, black and gray.

It should be noted that red, yellow and blue were the three primary colors utilized by Sir Isaac Newton’s color wheel. His theory was influential in the development of todays color wheels, which decorators and designers use to come up with color schemes.

This makes sense when you consider that different paint colors are achieved through pigmentation. Because red, yellow and blue (RYB) are the three primary colors of pigments, they are the three from which all others are created.

How to Create Secondary Colors of Light

RGB primary colors red, green, blue and secondary colors cyan, magenta, yellow

Pigment is just one medium through which to display color. Visible light is another way. In fact, television screens and smart phone displays are not based on pigmentation. They are based on light waves. The three primary colors for this particular medium are red, green and blue (RGB).

Unfortunately, grammar school art class doesn’t get into primary and secondary colors for this medium. So it can be difficult to wrap your brain around the fact that, in an RGB setting, red and green are combined to create yellow. Red and blue are combined to make magenta. Finally, blue and green make cyan. So the secondary colors for this medium are yellow, magenta and cyan.

The secondary colors in visible light are different from those in pigmentation because the respective primary colors are different. This reality has led to a redefining of primary and secondary colors.

For all intents and purposes, a primary color is one of three colors from which all others in a particular medium are made. A secondary color is a color derived from combining equal parts of two primary colors.

Adding and Subtracting Color

Another interesting aspect of secondary colors is how they are actually created. They are created through adding or subtracting. Again, much of this has to do with the medium you are dealing with. Adding and subtracting works one way with pigmentation and another with visible light.

Illustration with subtractive and additive color mixing systems

In terms of pigments, combining two primary colors to create a secondary color actually ends up removing the third primary color from the equation. This is all based on what creates the perception of color for the human eye.

The perception of color is the result of light reflecting off a surface. As you know, visible light is made up of a spectrum of colors. A surface that absorbs 100% of the visible light that strikes it is perceived by the eye as black. Likewise, a surface that reflects all of the colors is white.

With this understanding, combining yellow and blue pigments not only creates green, it also removes red by causing that portion of the spectrum to be filtered out, so to speak. Leaving the red intact would create a secondary color that leans more toward black than anything else.

When dealing with mixing colors in the RGB arena, it’s just the opposite. You are starting with black and adding light to create color. This is why red and green create yellow on your TV screen but you need yellow and blue to create green when working with paint.

Hues and Mixed Colors

Color wheel with 12 hues on gray background

Interior designers and graphic artists work with a variety of shades, tints, and tones. They also work with hues. A hue is often misunderstood as the purest form of a given color. This is true in painting, where a hue is a pure pigment without tint or shade. Yet a hue can be any color on the color wheel or in the visible light spectrum. For purposes of design, a hue is a starting point.

Imagine your favorite color is cadmium red. We understand cadmium red as a shade or tint compared to another variation of the red hue. But cadmium red can be the starting point for creating a color scheme. This is equally true for both a home decoration project and a video display.

Add white to a hue and you get a tint. Adding white makes the hue lighter. Add black and you get a shade. Black makes a hue darker. Add gray and you get a tone. All three – tints, shades, and tones – are based off the starting point, which is your hue.

This matters because it affects mixed colors. Let’s go back to the color wheel for purposes of illustration. You start with pure blue and yellow hues of pigment. Combine the two in equal portions and you get a pure green secondary color. But what if your blue wasn’t pure? What if it were a lighter tint? Now your mixed color would be slightly different as well.

You could create yet another mixed color if your yellow were a different shade. Just by combining primary colors in different tints, shades and tones, you can create a virtually endless number of mixed colors. Perhaps this explains why there are so many color choices when you’re trying to decide on paint for your home.

Luminescence and Saturation

Majestic landscape in Santa Magdalena before and after added luminescence and saturation

We can take the concept of expanding colors even further by discussing luminescence and saturation. The former relates to the amount of brightness in a given color while the latter relates to the intensity of that color.

You have undoubtedly adjusted the brightness on the television set. What happens when you adjust it upward? The entire picture gets lighter. It is as though you were injecting white into all the colors on the screen. This is exactly what happens when you introduce luminescence to a primary or secondary color.

Introduce luminescence to your primary color and the number of colors you can create grows exponentially. But why stop there? Saturation also plays a role. Think of your television set again.

You can adjust the color settings on your TV to make the colors bolder. What you’re doing is adding saturation. More saturation equals more color; less saturation means less color. Imagine the possibilities of varying saturation and luminescence in your primary colors, thus generating even more color possibilities.

Creating Tertiary Colors

Tertiary color wheel circle consisting of six colors

Finally, we can take the mind-boggling possibilities of colors and use them to create tertiary colors. Remember that a secondary color is derived by combining equal parts of two primary colors. Combine equal amounts of a primary and a secondary color together and you get a tertiary color. All of the same rules apply involving tints, shades, tones, saturation and luminescence.

All of this is possible for the simple fact that the human eye can recognize millions of color combinations. We start with three primary colors where two can be combined to create secondary colors. Then we combine a primary and a secondary color to make tertiary colors. All the resulting colors can be manipulated by adding black, white or gray. Our perceptions of resulting colors can be further manipulated with saturation and luminescence. It’s all pretty amazing when you stop and think about it.