Some more advanced color theory

Primary colors?

When you get into more advanced color theory, the term "primary colors" doesn't really apply anymore. The terms "primary, secondary and tertiary colors" come from a color theory that didn't include the concepts RGB and CMYK yet. With primary, they mean: colors that can't be mixed, and that you use to mix other colors. But the point is: when you mix light, you need different primary colors then when mixing paint.

Kandinsky invented the concept of red, yellow and blue being called primary colors. This is somehow spiritual, but it's abstracted from the mish-mash of these different primary colors. They don't make good mixing results. Here's a color mixing guide that will give good mixing results.


Here's a major issue in color theory: when you mix colored light, there are totally different primary colors then when mixing paint. This difference is called "additive" and "substractive" mixing. I used to mix them up always, but I can understand it in terms of mixing light, and mixing matter. Mixing light is called addivite mixing, and mixing paint is called substractive mixing. I name them both, because in painting (and looking at a painting) both light and matter play a role.

  • When mixing light (addivite mixing), the primary colors are red, green and ultramarine blue
  • When mixing paint (substractive mixing), the primary colors are yellow, light cold blue (cyan) and magenta (chemical pink).

rgb primary colors

Primary colors in RGB: when you mix light, you need these three primary colors.
for additive mixing

cymk primary colors

These (plus black) are CYMK primary colors, for mixing paint or ink.
for substractive mixing

In printing techniques, CYMK is used for color photo reproduction. Black is added to the yellow/cyan/magenta set, for achieving the darker shades. The reds you get can be a bit earthy and muddy, and the greens are very radient. It works well for photograpy because eye completes the picture optically (mainly by contrast) . Most photo's don't have much strong prismatic reds, and a machine can do very exact mixing. In painting though, experience shows some extra colors are needed, for having al the shades of the prisma, like a really dark carmine, a good medium red, two kinds of blue etc. In painting you work with both light and matter - on an optical level, the RGB color laws have an influence as well. Check here for a color mixing guide - based on both RGB and CYMK primary color systems, and taking into account that pure greens can be mixed more easily than pure reds.

secondary colors

Primary and secondary colors

Here's a scheme where CYMK primary colors are the secondary colors of RGB primary colors, and the other way around. This is not a ready-made color scheme, it's more like something to meditate on. The colors with the dots are the CYMK paint-prismatic colors (and the ones inbetween are secondary: results of mixing). For mixing light (RGB), it's just the other way around.

Green and magenta

It was Goethe who enabled me to understand the influence and function of green and magenta. Goethe showed, that both reds and blues result from an interaction of light and darkness, but in an opposite way. When darkness is active, you get reds, and when light is active, you get blues. Where reds and blues meet, you get either green, or magenta (Check here for the Goethean color theory basics- don't forget to check part 2 as well).

Green and magenta both have an affinity to the light. When you make a color copy print, of a black and white picture, with the lid open, stripes of green and magenta appear, merging together to a sky-blue.

Looking through a prisma, you can see that it's black and white, darkness and light, that brings forth strong rainbow-colors. Now, when you paint, it's green and magenta that enable you to tone and adjust the colors, and keep them in between representing inner states, or outer objects.

Light and consciousness

When you paint, you never only paint the outside of things. Your own perception and inner world always plays a role as well. This is where color theory gets advanced: exterior light is more aligned to green, and inner light has more of a magenta nature. Every hue has its own relation to the influences of magenta and green.

Light has two sides, two qualities: it can be inner light, peripheric and glowing up from within, and it can be outer light: sharp light that objectifies and puts things into matter and form.

Green represents the light that defines outer appearance, and also thought, and a consciousness that's focused on the outside world. Magenta represents the light that is within the colors. It's like the inner light of feeling, a state in which we connect and associate. It helps us to have an inner life, and also to lighten up and love things. Together, they enable us to fully interact with people and things around us, and really figure it out. Once you understand that, you can feel it when your colors need to make a shift. Strong glowy reds indicate a magenta-ish light - when the light is greenish, the reds will be more dull and material. Strong greens indicate a greenish light, and in an environment like that, reds will easily turn into browns.

One can try out their mood by wearing colored glasses. When wearing green glasses, the world appears just as-is, you see objects and your feelings settle down. It gives form and a solid feeling. When wearing magenta glasses, the perspective changes: instead of seeing objects apart, you see how they connect to each other and how your relate to them in space.

Shading, contrast and interval

There are three basic steps, in the way the color world creates itself.

  • prismatic shading: where light and darkness interact and come to terms, or where a dark covers a light (or the other way around), a color is made
  • contrast: one color will summon up its opposite or counterpart by contrast.
  • interval: where two contrasting colors find their balance, a third one is created by interval (not by mixing light or paint!)


Contrast can be produced inside our own eyes or brains, or optically (in your interior design, or your painting). It seems there's a little difference there: when a red produces a contrast within your own eyes, it's a green. But in a painting turquoise can contrast to a red as well. The contrast produced by the brain really depends on surrounding colors as well. A red light on a black background will have your eye produce a green contrast. A red light in a magenta car however, produces more of an interval color (dark violet).


Contrast is what makes colors come to life in a painting. This mailbox, in real life, is painted neutral grey. When photographed like this, on an orange-red brick wall, it turns out to be bluish-grey (when you pick its color in photoshop, with a color picker). If the wall would have been green, the mailbox would be reddish-grey.

Light and dark also contrast. A color contrast will come forward when values are moderate (when the colors are more or less equally dark).


Interval colors are not produced directly within our eyes or brains - they really have an existence of their own, even if it's only an optical one. Interval colors can appear, when both the parent colors are painted aerial, in their proper value and saturation, and with some white space in between them. Magenta is the most common interval color. When you desaturate color photographs, and have them printed, they often come back with a pink hue all over them.

These three pictures were painted in photoshop, each with only two colors. The middle hue is created by interval, on your LCD screen:

interval color scheme- magenta and green
interval color scheme - magenta and green
interval color scheme - magenta and green

Green and red, with yellow as interval-color.

Green and magenta, with a light cyan blue interval color.

Blue and red, with a magenta hue in the middle.

The third interval (between blue and red) appears everywhere between one of the blues (violet, cobalt blue, turquoise) and one of the prismatic reds (carmine, red, orange or yellow). So, it can also appears between turquoise and yellow.

I haven't met anyone yet who can really explain this phenomenon. It was (to my knowledge) first described by a watercolor painter, Liane Collot-d'Herbois who developed a really advanced color theory (Goethean, that is). Her method is still taught these days - look up 'atelier tiller' in google, there you'll find the ones who taught me in this respect.

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