Here’s a question for you: how many of you artists out there still consider the primary colours to be red, yellow, and blue? It is what we were taught from day one in school.
What baffles me is why it is still being taught as the standard, even in art school, apparently. Even though we know that if we want a giclee print made from one of our paintings, it will be made with the ink pigments magenta, yellow, cyan and black. Even though if you pick the most primary red (i.e. 100 percent red) you can think of from your computer screen (which we know uses red, green and blue as its primary colours because these are the additive primary colours of light), you can still print that red out and your printer is programmed to mix that red using the only pigments it contains: magenta, cyan, yellow and black. Does it make any sense to you that we use red, green, and blue light to get all the colours on the computer screen, but somehow only the yellow colour is the different primary on the traditional painting colour wheel?
Have you ever been trying to make a fuschia or magenta-coloured flower look right using what is commonly taught as a primary red? Let me guess – you gave up and went out and bought a colour of paint (possibly magenta…) that was as close as you could get to that flower colour. The reason? Magenta and fuschia are synonyms, essentially, and in order to get a nice, saturated fuschia, you cannot start with a ‘traditional primary red’ pigment. That is because magenta is the actual primary colour.
If you search magenta on the internet, the first thing that comes up is a definition. It describes magenta as “a light purplish red that is one of the primary subtractive colors, complementary to green.” We also find, further down in that same box, that the natural dye named magenta was not discovered until the 1850s. From Wikipedia, we learn that paintings featuring the colour magenta soon followed. Why do you suppose that is?
Cyan is what most of us would describe as a greenish blue. In fact, if you mix green light, and blue light (additive primaries), you get the colour cyan. Interestingly, the use of the word cyan has also increased significantly since the 1850s (search cyan, then click the ‘Translations, word origin, and more definitions” button below the definition.) I am not sure why the name for this colour was based on the Greek for “dark blue” and the Latin species name for cornflower. It certainly isn’t a dark blue OR the colour of cornflowers.
So, why are artists so unwilling to let go of the red, blue, yellow model for the colour wheel? It does have its place in art history. Historically, artists had to use the limited number of pigments that were available to them. Certainly, we can get purple from red and blue, we can get green from blue and yellow, and we can get orange from red and yellow. This works. And of course we can get to the tertiary colours as well. But the results are sometimes unsatisfactory. That certain really bright green – that’s a difficult colour to mix, isn’t it? Unless you start with a greenish blue, i.e. something at least close to cyan, you are not going to get there. And that really bright purple you want? Unless you start with a magenta, you aren’t going to get there either. Of course, we are not restricted to the traditional primaries when we are mixing colours on our palettes, are we? We have the luxury of purchased modern paint pigments that are already very close to the colours we want. We can cheat and use these or at least mix with them. But what if we were restricted to only three of these paint pigments? Which ones would you choose? Mastery of colour theory as taught by modern science will give you the tools you need to mix most of the colours you want using a minimum number of purchased pigments. Knowledge is power!
If you search primary pigments on the internet, the first link that comes up explains modern colour theory in a very accurate and succinct way. I would say it may be the best explanation I’ve seen yet. It even has a link to a demo near the end in case you are having trouble wrapping your mind around it. And if you still have more questions, read the Wikipedia page on colour theory… it does have a lot of explanations as to the history and the reasons why the traditional artistic way of understanding colour has been slow to catch up with the scientific way of understanding colour.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t sit well with you. It took me a long time, too. The dogma of red, yellow and blue as primaries is surprisingly entrenched, although there are other notable scientific theories that come from the 1850s that many people also find difficult to accept ;). Hah! Just found out I’m not the only one to make this comparison. And I guess the new cyan, magenta, yellow model didn’t really develop until sometime after the 1850s. So maybe I shouldn’t actually be so surprised. These changes in paradigm take time. Eventually, if you keep testing out the theory, and trying to disprove it, you will accept it – like any good theory.