What is a colour primary?

I try to keep my blogs short. But this is going to be difficult!

Let’s start with what a primary is not. The primaries are often quoted as being red, yellow and blue. And on the BBC website – of all places – it says “Primary colours are three key colours – Red, Yellow and Blue. They cannot be made from any other colour”. For the BBC site visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/homes/design/colour_wheel.shtml.

The statement that primary colours cannot be made from any other colour is simply not true. Further, it gives the mistaken impression that there is something special about these primaries (red, yellow and blue) that makes them stand apart from the other colours. Another false statement that one often sees even in quite scholarly work is that any colour can be made by the mixture of three primary colours.

What is true is that if we select three appropriate colours and mix them together we can make a suprising range of colours. These colours – let’s call them primaries – can combine to make a huge range of different colours but unfortunately there are no three primaries that can be selected such that in mixture they can create any other colour. Depending upon the choice of primaries the range (or gamut) of colours that can be created in mixture is larger or smaller. What makes a good set of primaries? Well, I think it is reasonable to say that a good set of primaries is one where the gamut of colours that can be created is large; indeed, I would argue that the optimal primaries are those that create the largest possible gamut.

There are certain sets of primaries that can easily be predicted to give a small gamut. For example, if any of the primaries are dull and desaturated then the gamut will not be very big. Also, if the three primaries are similar to each other then the primaries are not likely to be a good set. And finally, if it is possible to combine two of the primaries together to make the other one then the gamut will be tiny. This is where – I believe – the misleading statement on the BBC website comes from; for a good set of primaries it is important that the primaries are independent (that two cannot be mixed to match the other one) but this is a long way from the BBC statement. Once we havs selected three suitable priamries then it’s true that they cannot then be made by any other colours that the primary system can make – but to argue that this is why they are primaries is clearly a circular argument.

There is nothing special about red, yellow and blue. In fact, they are not even the optimal primaries! To say what the optimal primaries are we need to specify the type of mixing: additive or subtractive. Additive mixing describes the behaviour of light-emissive systems such as computer displays, subtractive mixing describes how paints and inks mix. For subtractive mixing the primaries are often quoted as red, yellow and blue, as in the BBC article. However, a larger subtractive gamut is obtained if we use cyan (instead of blue) and magenta (instead of red) – see figure below.

primary 

One of my current research interests is to understand why red, blue and yellow became known as the artists’ primaries when a larger gamut is obtained if a bluish red is used (something closer to a magenta) and if a greenish blue is used (something closer to cyan). One only has to look at the primary colours used in inkjet printers for example (where the manufacturers have a vested interest in being able to create a large gamut) to realise that cyan, magenta and yellow are the optimal subtractive primaries.

For additive colour mixing the optimal primaries are red, green and blue. The additive and subtractive primaries have an interesting relationship – but that’s for another blog, another day.

8 thoughts on “What is a colour primary?

  1. I hope I didn’t give anyone the impression that red, yellow and blue is not a good set of primaries – they are! It’s just they are not the only set, they probably are not the best set, and there is nothing special about red, yellow and blue.

  2. “One of my current research interests is to understand why red, blue and yellow became known as the artists’ primaries when a larger gamut is obtained if a bluish red is used (something closer to a magenta) and if a greenish blue is used (something closer to cyan).”

    Just look at the available pigments back in the beginning of the 20th Century!

    When were the phtalocyanine pigments invented and widely diffused?

    Same with quinacridone red & violet.

    Also, any real ultramarine blue is simply impossible to reproduce with the best mixture of phtalocyanine blue & violet-magenta, that’s probably part of the reason why painters keep the blue.

    However, I am pretty sure the visual reference behind the name “blue” changed a lot since colour-TV and computers arrived. The primary Blue of the computers would probably have been called Blue-Violet, or even very-violet Blue back in the 19th Century!

    Think about the trichromatic theory of Young-Helmholtz: their primary Violet is our primary Blue I think.

    ***

    My opinion is that the triplet Yellow Cyan Magenta will become a relic of the 20th Century colour-photography way of dealing with colour within 20 years. More and more people think that even for screens, having 4, 5 or more “primaries” would be much better. And in the printing industry it’s already a reality for a while: orange is a primary colour in wide-gamut printing. Ultramarine blue could be used as well, the “blue” made of CMYK is very dull and black….

    A

  3. “Another false statement that one often sees even in quite scholarly work is that any colour can be made by the mixture of three primary colors.”

    The above statement is not true. Any color can be made from a mixture of 3 primaries. That is the definition of trichromacy. What is true is that all colors can not be made from mixtures of a single set of 3 real primaries.

    I prefer to define primaries as a set of three colors for which none of the three can be made from mixtures of the other two.

    1. I see your point Mark, but the problem with the statement: “any colour can be made by the mixture of three primary colors,” is somewhat ambiguous. I guess my issue is that many seem to interpret this to mean that three primaries exist that can be mixed to make all colours which I think we would both agree is not true. I also agree with your definition of primaries (as a set of three colors for which none of the three can be made from mixtures of the other two) of course but even this statement is warped in some texts to suggest that these three primaries cannot be made from mixture at all, that they are in some sense ‘pure’.

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