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  • Marc Primo Warren


Updated: Mar 12, 2021

This is an article “What They Didn't Teach You in School About Primary Colors” by Marc Primo Warren

To most students encountering their primary colors for the first time, the lesson is quite simple. Red, Yellow, and Blue can all make up every other color when mixed together at certain levels. However, when you try to pursue a higher degree in art and design, you’ll soon know that this just isn’t true and that the reality behind colors is more complex and interesting than we were first taught in school.

Itten’s Color Wheel

The elementary idea about primary colors was first taught during the 17th century and was reinforced with more concrete theories in the 1950s when Bauhaus painter Johannes Itten produced the first color wheel comprising red, yellow, and blue. Eventually, color theorists discovered that the real primary colors intended for mixing and printing comprise magenta, cyan, and yellow.

With Itten’s first theory, yellow is the common factor which tells us that he used linguistics in coming up with his color wheel, rather than actual terms that bring out the science in color mixing. And while Itten’s primary color wheel was derived from basic color languages, he also reiterated the importance of color accuracy in describing proper shade and tone. For example, magenta cannot be described the same way red can because of the former’s bluish factor, and cyan can never be the same as blue with certain levels of green present in the former.

The birth of CMYK

While the concept of CMYK (with K representing ‘key’ or the monochrome black) first originated in 1906 when the Eagle Printing Company tried producing richer and darker color tones from the four-color palette, it was in 1956 that the Pantone company improved the color matching system to regulate the use of their ink in their productions. To this day, artists use CMYK as a standard in printing and has changed our perception of primary colors ever since.

Itten’s theory was then corrected during the 1960s when Brent Berlin and Paul Kay categorized colors by using their exact terms that came up with more color combinations in indigo, azure, or turquoise among many others. Berlin and Kay’s theory was able to draw a fine distinction between mixed colors that taught print experts how to discriminate actual colors in their productions.

Colors in terms of language

In further studies, color experts found Itten’s approach to be appealing yet incorrect. Magenta, cyan, and yellow make up the correct primary color trio when trying to mix for the maximum range of colors available in the Pantone Color Matching System. This is not to say that Itten’s theory shouldn’t be used in elementary schools when teaching children about colors. The language set by Itten absolutely makes for a more basic and easily comprehensible color concept to children.

In the Western education system, children learn about basic color terms such as those within the rainbow spectrum (ROYGBIV), but this can be a challenge when you try to ask a child how to differentiate navy blue from sky blue when all the color terms that he knows are limited to Itten’s color wheel. This can disable him to draw the distinctions between actual colors that are within the Pantone Color Matching System.

This draws us to the conclusion that, when trying to learn the true science behind how colors are made, the CMYK theory is the most logical explanation on how we can produce and come up with exact and distinct colors for visual production.

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