The Modern Primary Colors

The Modern Primary Colors

There is a new color wheel in town, and a new set of primary colors that make it turn:

Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan

Upon being exposed to this new information, artists tend to fall into one of the following camps:  

Camp 1:  "Yah, I know, like, duh"

Camp 2:  "Yes, and it means your ENTIRE CHILDHOOD WAS A LIE!"

Camp 3:  "Wait, what?"

Camp 4:  "You know... Red, Yellow, and Blue really never did mix ALL of the other colors, now that I think about it..."

Camp 5:  "No, you're WRONG"

Me?  I’ve moved through most of the camps and have finally arrived at a state of acceptance (I'm not much of a 'yeah, duh' sort of person though, and I've never thought ill of my elementary school art teachers.).  

It's difficult and strange to rethink such a foundational lesson.  The primary colors are practically the ABC's of art!  

If you're new to this theory, it helps to think more in terms of an addition to basic color theory, rather than a dismantling and rebuilding.  

So here goes:

Basic Modern Primary Color Theory

The modern primary colors are Magenta, Yellow, and, Cyan.  With these three colors (and Black) you can truly mix nearly any hue.  With the three modern primaries alone you can mix an exciting array of beautifully vibrant secondary and intermediate colors (which are mixed from a secondary and a primary).

But here's the real shocker: these colors can mix both Red and Blue.

Modern Primary Colors Cyan Magenta Yellow Greenleaf & Blueberry greenleafblue Handmade Watercolor Natural Pigments

So, it really is time to re-think the color wheel!

If you still don't believe me, just check under the hood of your printer.  These are the same colors your printer uses to reproduce all of the colors you can see on your screen!

Greenleaf and Blueberry Modern Primary Colors CMYK Handmade Watercolors

Natural Pigments vs Modern Primary Colors

So next I naturally wondered, "Can these modern primary colors really mix the dazzling array of natural pigments that we produce in any kind of faithful approximation?" (Hint: the answer is yes!)

To put these modern primary colors through their paces, I wanted to see how closely they could match the natural pigments in our color line, and how closely they measured up to the results of my printer!  

Greenleaf and Blueberry CMYK Modern Primary Colors Magenta Cyan Yellow Handmade Watercolors How To Mix Colors

First, I painted swatches of a spectrum of our colors made with natural pigments (center).  Next, I scanned them and printed them out to see how the printer would do reproducing these with its limited four ink cartridges (left).  Last, I pulled out the CMYK Set (see below), which contains our new Magenta, Yellow, Cyan, and Grey Ochre to quickly paint up some mixtures to match each swatch (right).

To be clear, when you mix colors you are creating an approximation or hue (which refers to the appearance of the color).  There will always be a difference when painting with, say, a mixed Malachite Hue or Malachite Genuine.  Paint made with pure, genuine, natural Malachite will always appear and handle differently than a mixed Malachite Hue.  Why?  They are different materials and therefore have different handling properties.  The molecular structure is different, giving different shape to each individual pigment particle, and pigment particle sizes can vary widely.  Malachite pigment will catch the light differently and spread across the page differently.  Which option is best for you depends on your preferences and your work.  

Our Colors

Since last year, we have been testing pigments and mixing up test batches of paint to create our own versions of the three modern primary colors: Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan.

To be in the G&B color line, these new colors needed to be lightfast, very low toxicity, useable with natural pigments, and gorgeous.

Unfortunately, the natural palette does not yield a natural true Magenta, Yellow, or Cyan.  Our new colors contain synthetic single pigments bound to a natural mineral base.

Introducing the G&B Modern Primary Colors:

Quinacridone Magenta

Quinoxalinedione Yellow

Phthalocyanine Blue

Greenleaf and Blueberry Modern Primary Colors CMYK Phthalo Cyan Quinacridone Magenta Yellow How to Mix colors

Our colors are always names for the pigment that makes them.  Synthetic color named are often unruly enough that they benefit greatly from abbreviation, or nicknames.  So, we refer to these as Quin. Magenta, Quinox. Yellow, and Phthalo Blue.

When in stock, they can be purchased individually, in a trio called the Modern Primary Trio, in a quad (that includes black) called the CMYK Set, and a more multipurpose palette called the Sketcher's Set.

Greenleaf and Blueberry greenleafblue CMYK Set Modern Primary color Watercolor Palette


Are Red & Blue Secondary Colors?

My answer?  No.  Though other people will call them that. 

Just because the hues we typically associate with Traditional Primary Red and Traditional Primary Blue can be mixed does not make them secondary colors.  Why?  Because color terminology is more specific than that.  

Here is a color pyramid using our modern primary colors, with Red and Blue in the secondary color positions (usually occupied by Orange, Green, and Purple).

Modern Primary Colors Greenleaf & Blueberry Magenta Yellow Cyan CMYK Handmade Watercolors Natural Pigments

Is there anything you notice about this color pyramid?  It's lopsided!  As you move from one hexagon to the next, the degree of change from hue to hue should be consistent.  But you notice that the transitions from Magenta to Red and from Cyan to Blue are so gradual that some of the changes are barely recognizable, whereas the transitions from Red to Yellow and Blue to Magenta are very marked.  The transitions on this pyramid are inconsistent.

Now, take a look at this pyramid:

Greenleaf & Blueberry Modern Primary Colors Cyan Magenta Black CMYK Handmade Watercolor Paint Natural Pigment

What do you notice here?  These transitions are all quite consistent.  And they leave Red and Blue in the intermediate color position.  Secondary colors are an even mixture of two primary colors.  Intermediate colors are a mixture of a primary and a secondary color (or an uneven mixture of two primary colors).  This arrangement leaves the traditional secondary colors in place (and the world can keep making sense).  

So.  My conclusion?:

The Modern Primary Colors are Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan.  

Red and Blue are Intermediate Colors.

Orange, Green, and Purple are secondary Colors.

And I'm going to take it a step further with this diagram:

Greenleaf & Blueberry Modern Color Theory Standardized Color Pyramid Handmade Watercolor Paints

The naming of colors is a fascinating but confusing topic.  Color names can describe what is seen, what a material is, and what a material looks like.  You can say a daffodil is yellow or you can describe a certain yellow as daffodil.  It would help if there was a bit more of a standard or system for the most basic color names.  Above is mine.

Many of the basic color names we use today are understood to refer specifically to color, which can eliminate the subjectivity and confusion of my above daffodil example.  But, it should be said that all color names originate in description once you get into the etymology.  Red came from the word for blood, black from ink.  For orange, which came first the color or the fruit? Indeed, the fruit came first.

As a person who deals with the minutia of color on a regular basis, I standardized the basics for my own sake.  I hope you find it useful though!

What about Red, Yellow, and Blue?

The good news?  You do not need to throw out everything you learned about the Traditional Primary Colors.  Just add the new lesson to the file.  It helps to think in terms of Red, Yellow, and Blue as color categories instead of as specific colors.  If you think of Magenta as a color that falls under the category of Red, and Cyan as falling under the category of Blue, then the theory still holds.  Just know that if you really do want to mix "all of the other colors" as the song says, then you will need specifically Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan.  If you have other versions of the primary color categories you will still be able to mix all kinds of different colors though!

Where Does Color Temperature Fit In?

Color Temperature is a system all about guiding you through using different varieties of Reds, Yellows, and Blues.  (I wrote a blog post all about it here.) If you understand color temperature then you will be able to quickly and predictably mix the kinds of colors you want with a wide variety of different kinds of primary colors.  The thing to remember here is: there are many different "primary" color combinations.  You can use Red Ochre, Yellow Ochre, and Vivianite (Blue Ochre), or Pipestone, Limonite, and Mayan Blue, or Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, and Ultramarine Blue.  Maybe you have all of those colors in your palette.  Understanding color temperature will help you understand how to mix all of those different colors for best results.  

These different theories and systems aren't mutually exclusive.  They work together nicely.  If you don't happen to have Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan in your palette or you don't enjoy working with synthetic pigments, then the modern primary color system doesn't really apply to you!  But you'll surely want to understand color temperature.

Why Are We Only Learning About Modern Primary Colors Now?

Goethe Color Wheel Modern Primary Colors

How did color theorists of the past "miss" these colors?  As I mentioned above, Magenta, Yellow, and Cyan don't really exist on the natural color palette.  The pigments for them have only been invented more recently, so the old masters, scientists, and color theorists of the past simply didn't have access to them.  I could get into more detail about light waves, the physiology of the human eye, and a dash of chemistry, but I'll save that kind of fun for a future post!  The moral of the story is that color theorists of the past weren't wrong, they just didn't get to work with all of the information that was yet to be discovered.

Modern Primaries Are Your Secret Weapon

These modern primary colors are perfect for creative minimalists or artists who prefer to travel light.  They can also be a good starting point if you are just beginning to build a palette - if you begin with these three primaries you can then add other colors that you use most to save you the trouble of mixing them.  You can also tuck them into your current palettes as a way to fill in any holes in a pinch!

Here is how I have them nestled into my palette:

Greenleaf and Blueberry Jess Greenleaf Artist Watercolor Palette Plein Air Painting Travel Watercolors

No matter where they fit in for you, I hope you have a good time getting to know these new colors.

As Always,

Thank you for reading, and Happy Painting!


Jess Greenleaf Artist Greenleaf and Blueberry Watercolor Painting

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