Understanding the Secondary Colors in Art and Their Complements

Learn How to Mix Green, Orange, and Purple

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The secondary colors are green, orange, and purple. Deanna Kelly / Getty Images

In color theory for artists, the secondary colors are green, orange, and purple. They are created by mixing two primary colors and this is useful when mixing custom colors of paint. The ratio of primary colors you use in the mix will determine the final hue of your secondary colors.

Mixing Secondary Colors

At its most basic, color theory tells us that if we mix equal parts of two primary colors—blue, red, and yellow—we will create either green, orange, or purple. This is the foundation for the color wheel and a lesson that is often taught in elementary art classes.

  • Blue and yellow make green.
  • Yellow and red make orange.
  • Red and blue make purple.

The secondary color you actually get will depend on the proportion in which you mix the two primaries. For example, if you add more red than yellow, you get a reddish orange, and if you add more yellow than red, you get a yellowish orange.

When we take this a step further and mix a primary color with a secondary color, we get a tertiary color. There are six of these colors and they're the compound colors such as red-orange and blue-green. 

The Primary Hue Matters

Additionally, artists know that there is more than one option when it comes to primary color paint choices. This will also affect the hue of your secondary color. For instance, a purple made of cerulean blue and a medium cadmium red will be different than the purple you get with cobalt blue and that same cadmium red.

These differences may be subtle, but it is important to know that they will happen. One thing that artists find helpful is to make a paint sample in a notebook with the colors mixed and the ratios they've used to obtain that color. It takes a lot of the guesswork out of trying to reproduce a particular hue the next time you want to paint with it.

Colors That Complement Secondary Colors

Diving a little deeper into color theory, we also learn that every color on the wheel has a complementary color. For our three secondary colors, that is the color which was not used to create it. This can help you in choosing a good paint to make your secondary colors appear brighter and when choosing shadow colors for objects.

  • The complementary color of green is red.
  • The complementary color of orange is blue.
  • The complementary color of purple is yellow.

Additive vs. Subtractive Secondary Colors

Did you know that this is not the only color system in use? When mixing paint, we are actually using subtractive colors. This means that we are subtracting one of the primary colors out of the equation that would create black. It is the traditional way of thinking about mixing colors.

Thanks to technology, some artists also have to deal with additive colors. This is true if you create artwork on the computer or work in graphic design. Additive colors are based on light and not pigments, so it begins with black and builds up color until it gets to white. In this system, red, green, and blue are the primaries, and the secondary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow.

It can be a little confusing, especially when generically trying to define "secondary colors." However, as long as you understand the medium being used—paint versus light—it's relatively easy to remember.