Primary colors


Colors that are not obtained from the combination or mixture of other colors are called primary colors. This definition is linked to a model based on the physiological response of receptor cells in the human eye. These receptor cells are known as cones. They act before the stimulus of light frequencies and the interferences that it receives. As it is a model based on biological responses, various primary color systems have been developed. The RGB system , made up of the primary colors in light. The CMYK system , made up of pigments, and the traditional RYB systemof primary colors. Since the first tribal formations and groups of humans, there has been a great concern for the use of colors, their definition and their combination. However, these are all idealized systems for interpreting biological reactions to the action of light.


What are primary colors?

The primary color is known as one that cannot be obtained from the mixture of other colors. The definition of colors is nothing more than an idealized model that is based on the physiological response of receptor cells in the human eye to the influence of light and its interferences. Thus, there are various systems that define primary colors . These are: The additive color system based on the emission of light, known as RGB. The primary colors that make up the pigment mixing system known as CMYK and, finally, the traditional RYB primary color system. This has been deprecated from the systems mentioned above.

  • Which are?
  • Characteristics of primary colors
  • History
  • Primary color models
  • Combinations
  • Differences with secondary colors
  • Importance

Which are?

There are 3 main models of primary colors and these are the tones that make up each model:


Traditional model (RYB)

  • Red
  • Yellow
  • Blue

Additive Light Model (RGB)

  • Red
  • Green
  • Blue

Pigment subtractive model (CMYK)

  • Cyan
  • Magenta
  • Yellow
  • The latter color is added to reduce printing costs

Characteristics of primary colors

The concept of primary colors has undergone modifications throughout history , as a result of advancing research on the senses and the human brain. It has been concluded that primary colors are not a property of light but a biological response of the human eye.

White light, as a continuous spectrum of wavelengths, has an indefinite number of colors and its perception is only limited by the sensitivity of the human eye.

The perception of these waves is carried out through three cones (receptor cells) and each one of them reacts to the wavelength corresponding to red, blue and green.

It was established that these three colors of light would be considered primary, since they stimulate the formation of a wider range of colors in the human brain.

Humans and species with three receptor cones are known as trichromats . But, it has been discovered that other spices have four receptor cones, they are called tetrachromats . It has also been established that some women have four receptors.

Most mammals only have two receptor cones, they are known as dichromats . For its part, there is a genetic malformation in humans in which two cones develop incorrectly. This prevents people who suffer from this anomaly from correctly perceiving the shades of red and green. This defect is known as color blindness .

Due to these advances in establishing the behavior of the human eye, the traditional system of primary colors, consisting of red, blue and yellow, was gradually abandoned.


The concept of mixing different colors to obtain new ones has traveled to all primitive and ancient civilizations. But, we can consider Ancient Greece as the pioneer in the combination of colors for artistic purposes.

It was not until the 18th century that the notion of primary colors began to be analyzed. It was Isaac Newton who spoke of seven primary colors in his work “Opticks” , published in 1704.

Towards the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, the French School of Painting relied on the model developed by Wolfgang von Goethe . This model was based more on the generation of emotions than on a scientific principle. Goethe created the RYB model . Red, yellow and blue that made up the traditional model, which also consisted of three secondary colors .

Research on light and its wave nature at the beginning of the 20th century was decisive in understanding the perception of the human eye. A new concept of primary colors according to physiological reactions began to be determined and the traditional RYB model was replaced.

Two new models emerged from these studies, one based on light and called RGB (red, green and blue) and the other on the mixture of physical colors or tints, known as CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). The inclusion of black in this model is based on the economy produced by the use of this color for text printing.

Primary color models

There are three primary color models that are defined by their characteristics and uses.

  • Model of additive primary colors based on light, RGB : consists of the emission of light of different colors. Red, green and blue. This model is used by television screens, monitors, etc. This is why they are called the primary colors of light.
  • Primary Color Model in Pigments, CMYK : This model is based on subtractive synthesis for mixing pigments, dyes, colorants and paints. In this model, the colors are obtained from the absorption of certain light waves and the reflection of others. The CMYK model is used for printing, painting, etc.
  • Traditional Primary Color Model or RYB : This model was used before research on the character of light and the physiological reactions of the human eye. It was made up of the colors red, blue and yellow. It was created by Wolfgang von Goethe and made known in his “Theory of Colors” published in 1810.


Each known primary color model offers different combinations and different results:

In the RGB model we have the following basic combinations:

  • Green + blue = Cyan
  • Red + blue = Magenta
  • Red + green = Yellow
  • Red + blue + green = White

The CMYK model has its own color scheme:

  • Magenta + yellow = Red
  • Cyan + yellow = Green
  • Cyan + magenta = Blue
  • Cyan + Magenta + Yellow = Black

In this model, the black dye is incorporated as it is more economical to make without having to resort to the other three.

Goethe defined three primary colors. Blue, red and yellow and of the combination of these, three secondary colors:

  • Blue + yellow = Green
  • Blue + red = Purple
  • Red + yellow = Orange

Differences with secondary colors

The main difference between primary and secondary colors is that the former are not the result of any mixing or combination of colors. On the contrary, the secondary colors are the result of the combination of the primary colors.

Depending on the primary color model, the result of the secondary colors will be different as can be seen in the different combinations.


Primary colors and their different combinations are of decisive importance in children’s learning processes . These colors allow to express emotions, moods and perceptions of reality.

On the other hand, art theory places emphasis on the use of colors and their different combinations or mixtures.

In everyday life, we can see the use of primary colors as part of visual language. Traffic signs, identification of different assistance and emergency services, etc.

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