The Color Wheel you learned in Kindergarten was wrong: Cyan, Magenta and Yellow: Primary Additive Colors (True Color Wheel)

true color wheel

by gabemott on August 16, 2010 · 3 comments

Think back to the first color wheel you made… for that matter, recall the most recent color wheel you made. In all likelyhood, you used yellow, fire engine red and a cobalt blue. Thinking it an incompetence of mine at the time, I remember the blue and red mixing to make mud. OK, perhaps it wasn’t that dramatic, but it certainly wasn’t the stunning purple that is so often portrayed in classic color wheels.

Years ago, Dick Nelson noticed that the despite the fact that printers had already modified this classic color wheel to the correct trio of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, most art classes were stuck with an innacurate set of primaries. He developed and began teaching the tri-hue method.

Further evidence of this is that the primary colors of light are pretty well confirmed to be red, green and blue. If you’ve never seen this to be true, I highly recommend getting out a magnifying glass and looking at this monitor. If you don’t have a magnifying glass, a small drop of water will do. Yes, water on the monitor. (My lawyers are telling me I can’t say this, but it’s too important). Really once you see that every color and shape on this monitor is literally made up of three simple colors, once you see it with you own eyes, through a drop of water, you will have a greater understanding of how additive color mixing works.

By the way, the funnest way to get a drop of water on your monitor is to face your monitor about a foot away, put your lips together tightly and blow– the old raspberry. You don’t need to use too much moisture at all. This will pepper the monitor with tiny water drops, inside of which you will see  Red, Green and Blue light dots.

DISCLAIMER: Color is Relative assumes no responsibilty for damaged monitors– and hey, if you’re complaining about a messy monitor after following these steps it was probably time for you to clean your monitor anway.

So, as I was saying, Red, Green and Blue are the primaries of light (additive). It follows that their complementary colors are the primaries of ink and paint (subtractive).


I previously posted this video on facebook. Some of the comments on this video from the facebook page:

  • “Fascinating! Thank you for sharing this!” -Shannon Del Vecchio

  • “amazing that you sent this to me. cause just in the past few days I have been seeing such colors. it started a few days ago when i decided -who knows why- to start making some beaded necklaces for myself.the colors i imagined in my mind did…n’t really look good when i strung them up. so i started selecting others.and it got into my dreams all night long dreaming of color combinations.then when doing my psychic readings i started to see colors a with each person i was doing a reading with. i went to borders and started studing color combination books. swimming underwater with eyes closed i saw amazingly beautiful color combinations.i was telling my friend last night whose in Israel right now trying to solve peace problems. about this i new color phenomenna thats taking over my mind. when i receive this form you. connected to the mind intelligence of the universe we are. mahalo”

    -Helen Kritzler

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Guy Manning March 11, 2012 at 12:40 pm

Dick must have been sleeping through his classes at Art Center or he never really went there. According to Vartikian in first term, the RYB model was theoretical and only for mixing pigments. In theory all colors could be made from the 3 RYB primaries, plus black and white. But for technological reasons none of the hues in paints were pure, so theory failed. That’s why you had to have all those other colors in your paint box like cobalt violet. Wally (the printing instructor) made it clear that the CMYK model was used in 4 color offset printing and how it worked. Color photo classes taught how RGB becomes color on CMY dye layers of prints and transparencies.

2 Don Jusko October 6, 2012 at 6:27 pm

Guy, RGB transparencies will not produce Cyan, Magenta and yellow. Only light will do that. Dye layers and transparencies are not emitting light. However if you take the pigment color, transparent cyan, magenta and yellow and put it on transparencies, you will get the secondaries, Red, Green and Blue. You’re friend at the Maui Art Center, Varitkian?, is wrong, and Dick is right, RYB are the wrong colors as primaries for the artist. They are still taught that way in some schools but they are wrong and I have proof. http://www.realcolorwheel.com/colorwheel.htm

3 Michael Pohoreski September 26, 2014 at 12:13 pm

This article does very *poor* job of explaining color theory. CYM and RGB are two different color models based on the _medium_.

*Additive* color used in CRTs, LCDs, Projectors, uses RGB.
*Subtractive* color used for pigment on paper, canvas, etc. uses CYM.

Which one is “correct” is based whether you are adding or subtracting light which is decided by the medium.

A correct title would say “The Color Wheel you learned in Kindergarten was _incomplete_”

Lastly, any Color Theory is incomplete without mentioning that it is possible to have color with only 2 frequencies that Edwin H. Land (who started Polaroid Corp.) demonstrated conclusively with his Retinex Theory!

This image “appears” to be in color:
* http://scien.stanford.edu/pages/labsite/2000/psych221/projects/00/mjahr/img004.gif

But it is ONLY composed of red and grey! How are we able to perceive green??
* http://scien.stanford.edu/pages/labsite/2000/psych221/projects/00/mjahr/img005.gif

Stanford has a good whitepaper on Retinex Theory
http://scien.stanford.edu/pages/labsite/2000/psych221/projects/00/mjahr/ppframe.htm

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