Why CMYK Primary Colors Aren't Used for Painting

Color wheel in paint

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Every now and then people get confused about red, blue, and yellow being the primary colors for painting, and think the correct colors are CYMK (magenta, cyan, yellow, and black). That's because many artists use digital platforms and become familiar with both systems.

Beyond Primary Colors

Indeed, any printer or graphic designer does know CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and black) to be their primary colors. That's because the primary colors used as printing inks are different from 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 produce. But if you limit yourself to these, you're limiting the joys that come from the 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. You can use a red as-is, mix it with other colors (physical mixing), or use it as a glaze (optical mixing). You have far more options with paint than printing ink.

Single Pigment Paints for Color Mixing

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 the paints that are made from single pigments.

Learning the characteristics of individual pigments and how they mix with others is only 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, this same issue occurs with mixing red and yellow for oranges, and blue and yellow for greens. The best thing to do is to experiment with mixing the colors you have and see the results!