ss-lwImagine you’re a painter.  What three colors do you need to make up any color in the universe?  (You should be thinking: red, yellow, and blue… and yes, you are right if you’re thinking that the real primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow, but some folks still prefer to think of the primary colors as red-yellow-blue… either way, it’s really not important to this experiment which primary set you choose.)

Here’s a trick question – can you make the color “yellow” with only red, green, and blue as your color palette?  If you’re a scientist, it’s not a problem.  But if you’re an artist, you’re in trouble already.

The key is that we would be mixing light, not paint.  Mixing the three primary colors of light gives white light.  If you took three light bulbs (red, green, and blue) and shined them on the ceiling, you’d see white.  And if you could magically un-mix the white colors, you’d get the rainbow (which is exactly what prisms do.)

If you’re thinking yellow should be a primary color – it is a primary color, but only in the artist’s world.  Yellow paint is a primary color for painters, but yellow light is actually made from red and green light.  (Easy way to remember this: think of Christmas colors – red and green merge to make the yellow star on top of the tree.) It’s because you are using projection of light, not the subtrative combination of colors to get this result.

Here’s a nifty experiment that will really bring these ideas to life (and light!):


  • flashlight (three is best, but you can get by with two)
  • fingernail polish (red, green, and blue)
  • clear tape or cellophane (saran wrap works too)
  • white wall space
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