Primary color

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This article is about colors. For other uses, see Primary Colors.
The emission spectra of the three phosphors that define the additive primary colors of a CRT color video display. Other electronic color display technologies (LCD, Plasma display, OLED) have analogous sets of primaries with different emission spectra.

Primary colors are sets of physical media (pigment or dye) or lights that can be combined to make a useful range of colors.

For additive combination of colors, as in overlapping projected lights or in electronic visual displays, the primary colors normally used are red, green and blue. For a subtractive combination of colors, as in mixing of pigments or dyes for printing, the colors magenta, yellow and cyan are normally used.[1] However, red, yellow and blue are commonly used as primaries when painting or drawing.[2] See RGB color model, CMYK color model and RYB color model for more on these popular sets of primary colors.

In an additive system, choices of sets of primary colors are arbitrary, subject to weak constraints from the spectral sensitivities of each of the human cone photoreceptors.[3] An early color photographic process, autochrome, typically used orange, green and violet primaries.[4]

The combination of any two primary colors creates a secondary color. The most commonly used additive color primaries are the secondary colors of the most commonly used subtractive color primaries, and vice versa.

Biological basis[edit]

Primary colors are not a fundamental property of light but are related to the physiological response of the eye to light. Fundamentally, light is a continuous spectrum of the wavelengths that can be detected by the human eye, an infinite-dimensional stimulus space.[5] However, the human eye normally contains only three types of color receptors, called cone cells. Each color receptor responds to different ranges of the color spectrum. Humans and other species with three such types of color receptors are known as trichromats. These species respond to the light stimulus via a three-dimensional sensation, which generally can be modeled as a mixture of three primary colors.[5]

Before the nature of colorimetry and visual physiology were well understood, scientists such as Thomas Young, James Clerk Maxwell and Hermann von Helmholtz expressed various opinions about what should be the three primary colors to describe the three primary color sensations of the eye.[6] Young originally proposed red, green and violet, and Maxwell changed violet to blue; Helmholtz proposed "a slightly purplish red, a vegetation-green, slightly yellowish (wavelength about 5600 tenth-metres), and an ultramarine-blue (about 4820)".[7] In modern understanding, human cone cells do not correspond precisely to a specific set of primary colors, as each cone type responds to a range of color wavelengths.

Species with different numbers of receptor cell types would have color vision requiring a different number of primaries. For example, for species known as tetrachromats, with four different color receptors, one would use four primary colors. Since humans can only see to 380 nanometers (violet), but tetrachromats can see into the ultraviolet to about 300 nanometers, this fourth primary color for tetrachromats is located in the shorter-wavelength range.[8]

Many birds and marsupials are tetrachromats, and it has been suggested that some human females are tetrachromats as well,[9][10] having an extra variant version of the long-wave (L) cone type.[11] The peak response of human color receptors varies, even among individuals with "normal" color vision;[12] in non-human species this polymorphic variation is even greater, and it may well be adaptive.[13] Most placental mammals other than primates have only two types of color receptors and are therefore dichromats; to them, there are only two primary colors.

It would be incorrect to assume that the world "looks tinted" to an animal (or human) with anything other than the human standard of three color receptors. To an animal (or human) born that way, the world would look normal to it, but the animal's ability to detect and discriminate colors would be different from that of a human with normal color vision. If a human and an animal both look at a natural color, they see it as natural; however, if both look at a color reproduced via primary colors, such as on a color television screen, the human may see it as matching the natural color, while the animal does not, since the primary colors have been chosen to suit human capabilities.

Additive primaries[edit]

Main articles: Additive color and RGB color model
Additive color mixing
The sRGB color triangle

Media that combine emitted lights to create the sensation of a range of colors are using the additive color system. Typically, the primary colors used are red, green and blue.[14]

Television and other computer and video displays are a common example of the use of additive primaries and the RGB color model. The exact colors chosen for the primaries are a technological compromise between the available phosphors (including considerations such as cost and power usage) and the need for large color triangle to allow a large gamut of colors. The ITU-R BT.709-5/sRGB primaries are typical.

CIE 1931 RGB color triangle with monochromatic primaries

Additive mixing of red and green light produces shades of yellow, orange, or brown.[15] Mixing green and blue produces shades of cyan, and mixing red and blue produces shades of purple, including magenta. Mixing nominally equal proportions of the additive primaries results in shades of grey or white; the color space that is generated is called an RGB color space.

The CIE 1931 color space defines monochromatic primary colors with wavelengths of 435.8 nm (violet), 546.1 nm (green) and 700 nm (red). The corners of the color triangle are therefore on the spectral locus, and the triangle is about as big as it can be. No real display device uses such primaries, as the extreme wavelengths used for violet and red result in a very low luminous efficiency.

Recent developments[edit]

Some recent TV and computer displays are starting to include yellow as a fourth "primary" color, often in a four-point square pixel area, so as to achieve brighter pure yellows and a larger color gamut.[16] Even the four-primary technology does not yet reach the range of colors that the human eye can see from light reflected by illuminated surfaces (as defined by the sample-based estimate called the Pointer Gamut[17]), with 4-primary LED prototypes providing typically about 87% and 5-primary prototypes about 95%. Several firms, including Samsung and Mitsubishi, have demonstrated LED displays with five or six "primaries", or color LED point light sources per pixel.[18][19] A recent academic literature review claims a gamut of 99% can be achieved with 5-primary LED technology.[20] While technology for achieving a wider gamut appears to be within reach, other issues remain; for example, affordability, dynamic range, and brilliance. In addition, there exists hardly any source material recorded in this wider gamut, nor is it currently possible to recover this information from existing visual media. Regardless, industry is still exploring a wide variety of "primary" active light sources (per pixel) with the goal of matching the capability of human color perception within a broadly affordable price. One example of a potentially affordable but yet unproven active light hybrid places an LED screen over a plasma light screen, each with different "primaries". Because both LED and plasma technologies are many decades old (plasma pixels going back to the 1960s), both have become so affordable that they could be combined.

Subtractive primaries[edit]

Main article: Subtractive color

Media that use reflected light and colorants to produce colors are using the subtractive color method of color mixing.

CMYK color model or four-color printing[edit]

Main article: CMYK color model

In the printing industry, to produce the varying colors the subtractive primaries cyan, magenta and yellow are applied together in varying amounts. Before the color names cyan and magenta were in common use, these primaries were often known as blue-green and purple or in some circles as blue and red, respectively, and their exact color has changed over time with access to new pigments and technologies.[21]

Subtractive color mixing – the magenta and cyan primaries are sometimes called purple and blue-green or red and blue.

Mixing yellow and cyan produces green colors; mixing yellow with magenta produces reds, and mixing magenta with cyan produces blues. In theory, mixing equal amounts of all three pigments should produce grey, resulting in black when all three are applied in sufficient density, but in practice they tend to produce muddy brown colors. For this reason, and to save ink and decrease drying times, a fourth pigment, black, is often used in addition to cyan, magenta and yellow.

These results are described by the CMYK color model. The abbreviation stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key—black is referred to as the key color, a shorthand for the key printing plate that impressed the artistic detail of an image, usually in black ink.[22]

In practice, colorant mixtures in actual materials such as paint tend to be more complex. Brighter or more saturated colors can be created using natural pigments instead of mixing, and natural properties of pigments can interfere with the mixing. For example, mixing magenta and green in acrylic creates a dark cyan—something which would not happen if the mixing process were perfectly subtractive.

A system of subtractive color does not have a simple chromaticity gamut analogous to the RGB color triangle, but a gamut that must be described in three dimensions. There are many ways to visualize such models, using various 2D chromaticity spaces or in 3D color spaces.[a]


RYB color model[edit]

Main article: RYB color model

The RYB model is historic color model[23] that predates modern scientific color theory even though painters have long used more than three "primary" pigments on their palettes.[b]

During the 18th century, as theorists became aware of Isaac Newton's scientific experiments with light and prisms, red, yellow and blue became the canonical primary colors—supposedly the fundamental sensory qualities that are blended in the perception of all physical colors and equally in the physical mixture of pigments or dyes. This theory became dogma, despite abundant evidence that red, yellow and blue primaries cannot mix all other colors, and has survived in color theory to the present day.[24]

Psychological primaries[edit]

Approximations within the sRGB gamut to the "aim colors" of the Natural Color System, a model based on the opponent process theory of color vision.
Main article: Opponent process. See also: Natural Color System, Unique hues

The opponent process is a color theory that states that the human visual system interprets information about color by processing signals from cones and rods in an antagonistic manner. The three types of cones have some overlap in the wavelengths of light to which they respond, so it is more efficient for the visual system to record differences between the responses of cones, rather than each type of cone's individual response. The opponent color theory suggests that there are three opponent channels: red versus green, blue versus yellow and black versus white.[25] Responses to one color of an opponent channel are antagonistic to those of the other color. The theory states that the particular colors considered by an observer to be uniquely representative of the concepts red, yellow, green, blue, white and black might be called "psychological primary colors", because any other color could be described in terms of some combination of these.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See the Google image results for "cmyk gamut" for examples.
  2. ^ For instance Leonardo da Vinci wrote of these four simple colors in his notebook circa 1500. See Rolf Kuenhi. "Development of the Idea of Simple Colors in the 16th and Early 17th Centuries". Color Research and Application. Volume 32, Number 2, April 2007.


  1. ^ Matthew Luckiesh (1915). Color and Its Applications. D. Van Nostrand company. pp. 58, 221. 
  2. ^ Chris Grimley & Mimi Love (2007). Color, space and style: all the details interior designers need to know but can never find. Rockport Publishers. p. 137. ISBN 978-1-59253-227-8. 
  3. ^ The Science of Color - Steven K. Shevell, Optical Society of America - Google Books
  4. ^ Walter Hines Page & Arthur Wilson Page (1908). The World's Work: Volume XV: A History of Our Time. Doubleday, Page & Company. 
  5. ^ a b Michael I. Sobel (1989). Light. University of Chicago Press. pp. 52–62. ISBN 0-226-76751-5. 
  6. ^ Edward Albert Sharpey-Schäfer (1900). Text-book of physiology. 2. Y. J. Pentland. p. 1107. 
  7. ^ Alfred Daniell (1904). A text book of the principles of physics. Macmillan and Co. p. 575. 
  8. ^ Goldsmith, Timothy H. (July 2006). "What Birds See" (PDF). Scientific American. 295: 68–75. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0706-68. 
  9. ^ Backhaus, Kliegl & Werner Color Vision: Perspectives from Different Disciplines (De Gruyter, 1998, ISBN 3110161001), pp.115–116, section 5.5.
  10. ^ Pr. Mollon (Cambridge University), Pr. Jordan (Newcastle university) "Study of women heterozygote for colour difficiency" (Vision Research, 1993)
  11. ^ M. Neitz; T. W. Kraft & J. Neitz (1998). "Expression of L cone pigment gene subtypes in females". Vision Research. 38 (21): 3221–3225. doi:10.1016/S0042-6989(98)00076-5. PMID 9893829. 
  12. ^ Neitz, Jay & Jacobs, Gerald H. (1986). "Polymorphism of the long-wavelength cone in normal human colour vision". Nature. 323 (6089): 623–5. doi:10.1038/323623a0. PMID 3773989. 
  13. ^ Jacobs, Gerald H. (1996). "Primate photopigments and primate color vision.". PNAS. 93 (2): 577–81. doi:10.1073/pnas.93.2.577. PMC 40094free to read. PMID 8570598. 
  14. ^ Thomas D. Rossing & Christopher J. Chiaverina (1999). Light science: physics and the visual arts. Birkhäuser. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-387-98827-6. 
  15. ^ "Some Experiments on Color", Nature 111, 1871, in John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) (1899). Scientific Papers. University Press. 
  16. ^ Garvey, Jude (2010-01-20). "Sharp four primary color TVs enable over one trillion colors". 
  17. ^ M. R. Pointer (1980). "The Gamut of Real Surface Colours". Color Research and Application. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 5 (3): 145–155. doi:10.1002/col.5080050308. 
  18. ^ Chih-Cheng Chan; Guo-Feng Wei; Hui Chu-Ke; Sheng-Wen Cheng; Shih-Chang Chu; Ming-Sheng Lai; Arex Wang; Shmuel Roth; Oded Ben David; Moshe Ben Chorin; Dan Eliav; Ilan Ben David (1999). Development of Multi-Primary Color LCD. AU Optronics, Science-Based Industrial Park, Hsin-Chu, Taiwan; Genoa Color Technologies, Herzelia, Israel. 
  19. ^ Thomas Rossing; Christopher J Chiaverina (24 September 1999). Light Science: Physics and the Visual Arts. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 178–. ISBN 978-0-387-98827-6. 
  20. ^ Abhinav Priya (2011), Five-Primary Color LCD (PDF), Cochin University of Science and Technology, Department of Electronics Engineering, p. 2 
  21. ^ Ervin Sidney Ferry (1921). General Physics and Its Application to Industry and Everyday Life. John Wiley & Sons. 
  22. ^ Frank S. Henry (1917). Printing for School and Shop: A Textbook for Printers' Apprentices, Continuation Classes, and for General use in Schools. John Wiley & Sons. 
  23. ^ "Franciscus Aguilonius". Colorsystem: Colour order systems in art and science. Archived from the original on 2014-02-13. 
  24. ^ Bruce MacEvoy. "Do 'Primary' Colors Exist?" (Material Trichromacy section). Handprint. Accessed 10 August 2007.
  25. ^ Michael Foster (1891). A Text-book of physiology. Lea Bros. & Co. p. 921. 

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