CMYK Aren't Primary Colors for Painting

Color Wheel
A Basic Color Wheel Can Help Quilters. Dimitri Otis / Getty Images

Every now and then we get another email  to tell us we are wrong about red, blue, and yellow being the primary colors for painting, that the correct colors are magenta, cyan, and yellow. Here's part of the latest one:

"I am dismayed to see the perpetuation of the misconception that red is a primary color. Any printer or graphic designer knows that the primary colors are magenta, yellow, and cyan. Red is made using magenta and a little bit of yellow..."

Beyond Primary Colors

Indeed, any printer or graphic designer does know CMYK to be their primary colors. That's because the primary colors used as printing inks are different to the primary colors used in color mixing for painting. The two things are different.

You can, of course, get good results if you use pure CMY paint colors, which some paint manufacturers do produce. But if you limit yourself to these, you're limiting the joys that come from the different characteristics of different pigments used to make paints.

In printing red is made from magenta and yellow printed on top of one another (not mixed), but in painting a red can be selected from a wide range of pigments, each with its own color character and degree of opacity/transparency (Know Your Reds). You can use a red as is, mix it with other colors (physical mixing), or use it as a glaze (optical mixing). You've far more options with paint than printing ink.

Using single-pigment paints for color mixing rather than colors made from multiple pigments is part of successful color mixing. This information can be found on the labels of paint tubes (though most people don't look at the small print).

There are many reds, yellows, and blues in paint that are made from single pigments.

Learning the characteristics of individual pigments and how they mix with others is part of learning to paint. Every red mixed with every blue doesn't produce a decent purple just because painting color theory says Red+Blue=Purple. The individual pigments give different results and you have to be selective, to learn what red pigment with what blue gives what type of purple when mixed in what proportions. Likewise red and yellow for oranges, blue and yellow for greens.