Primary Color & Secondary Colors: Definition & Names

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  • 0:04 Color Theory
  • 1:06 Primary Colors
  • 1:55 Secondary Colors
  • 3:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many colors that artists can use, but all of them originate with the primary and secondary colors. In this video, we'll talk about these colors and see how they are defined.

Color Theory

Look around you. Chances are, the world around you is full of colors. While we're pretty used to seeing a multitude of colors in our daily lives, the fact that so many colors actually exist is pretty incredible when you think about it. What our eyes interpret as colors is a result of waves of light bouncing off of tiny chemicals within objects called pigments. Pigments absorb certain kinds of light, but reflect others. The colors that are reflected are the ones that reach our eyes.

However, for all of this complexity, all the colors we see are really just a combination of a few basic colors, mixed in different ways. Colors from pure light mix differently than those that come from things with pigments, like paint, so for now we're just going to focus on pigment-based colors, the ones artists use to create their masterpieces. The world is full of colors, and capturing them in a painting means you need to know how colors are made.

Primary Colors

Let's start at the most basic unit of colors. A primary color is one that cannot be created by combining any other color. You may look around you and assume that there are dozens of primary colors, but in fact there are only three. Every other color you see in a painting is created from a combination of these three colors.

So, what are they? The three primary colors are blue, red, and yellow. These hues cannot be created by blending or mixing any other colors. When dealing with digital media, you may often see these colors labeled as cyan, magenta, and yellow. Since our computers use light to blend colors, and not physical solutions with pigments, the primary colors are slightly different.

Secondary Colors

Artists create physical, tangible colors like those in paints and dyes by mixing various amounts of primary colors. While it may seem incredible, we can create any color on a color wheel just by mixing these three colors, along with white and black. Traditionally, white and black aren't considered primary colors because they imply an absence of color or a combination of all the colors. Generally, artists build up a full palette of color gradually, by combining primary colors in consistent ways.

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