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Can you make any color with red blue and green?

Color is a fascinating topic that has captivated humans since the dawn of time. The ability to see and appreciate the rainbow of colors that surround us is one of our most treasured senses. But how exactly do colors work? And can we create any color by mixing just three primary colors – red, blue and green?

The Basics of Color

To understand color mixing, we first need to cover some color theory basics. What we perceive as color is actually light of different wavelengths reflecting off objects and entering our eyes. The visible spectrum of light ranges from about 400 nanometers (violet) to 700 nanometers (red). Our eyes contain special photoreceptor cells called cones that are sensitive to different wavelengths of light. There are three types of cones:

  • S cones – Sensitive to short wavelengths (blue light)
  • M cones – Sensitive to medium wavelengths (green light)
  • L cones – Sensitive to long wavelengths (red light)

When light hits an object, some wavelengths are absorbed while others are reflected. The reflected wavelengths enter our eyes and stimulate the cones. Our brain interprets these signals as color. For example, a lemon appears yellow because it absorbs blue and red light, while reflecting green and yellow wavelengths.

Primary Colors

When it comes to mixing colors, there are three sets of primary colors to consider:

  • Additive primaries – Red, green, and blue light. These are used for mixing light such as on a computer screen or theater lighting.
  • Subtractive primaries – Cyan, magenta, and yellow pigments. These are used for mixing paints, inks, and dyes.
  • Traditional art primaries – Red, yellow, and blue paint pigments. Commonly taught in art education.

For the purposes of this article, we will focus on the additive primaries of red, green, and blue light. These three colors form the basis of many color mixing applications.

RGB Color Model

The RGB color model is used for mixing colors of light. It is based on the three additive primaries:

  • Red light stimulates the L cones in our eyes.
  • Green light stimulates the M cones.
  • Blue light stimulates the S cones.

By mixing different intensities of red, green, and blue light, a wide range of colors can be created. This is how color mixing works for computer monitors, TV screens, theater lighting, and other color applications that start with light sources.

RGB Color Mixing

Here is an overview of how mixing RGB colors works:

Color Mix Result
Red + Green Yellow
Red + Blue Magenta
Green + Blue Cyan
Red + Green + Blue White
No light Black

As shown in the table, combining two primary colors creates a secondary color. Combining all three primaries together produces white light. And the absence of any light results in black.

Can Any Color Be Created with RGB?

Now we get to the key question – can you create any color using only red, green, and blue light? The short answer is yes! Here’s why:

  • By varying the brightness levels of the R, G, and B sources, many colors can be produced.
  • Our eyes and brain perceive blends of the primaries as entirely new hues.
  • RGB values are expressed digitally on a scale from 0 to 255 for each primary.
  • This allows for over 16 million possible color combinations.

Some examples of colors created by mixing RGB sources include:

Color RGB Mix
Pink High red + low blue
Turquoise Moderate green + low red
Orange High red + moderate green
Lavender Moderate red + low green + high blue

As you can see, by carefully adjusting the brightness of each primary component, a vast array of colors can be generated.

Color Limitations of RGB

Despite being able to produce millions of colors, there are some limitations to mixing only red, green, and blue light:

  • Cannot produce extremely saturated or pure colors
  • Limited in reproducing some shades of purple and magenta
  • Struggles with dark shades and hues
  • Metallic and fluorescent colors are difficult to replicate

While talented lighting designers can work around these issues, for the highest quality color mixing, additional primaries are sometimes added. For example, theater lighting may also incorporate amber and lime LEDs to expand the range of achievable hues and saturations.

The CMY Color Model

When mixing pigments like paint and inks, the CMY or CMYK color model is used instead of RGB. The primary colors here are:

  • Cyan (absorbs red light)
  • Magenta (absorbs green light)
  • Yellow (absorbs blue light)
  • Key (K) (black pigment)

Since pigments work by absorbing and subtracting wavelengths rather than emitting light, the primary colors are the complements of red, green, and blue:

Light Primaries Pigment Primaries
Red Cyan
Green Magenta
Blue Yellow

This allows full absorption of light to create darker colors. Mixing CMY pigments results in darker browns and muddied hues rather than bright colors. The K component (black pigment) helps improve contrast and richness.

Can Any Color Be Created with CMY?

Like RGB, combining cyan, magenta, and yellow at full saturation should theoretically allow the recreation of any color. However, due to physical pigment constraints, the CMY model also has some limitations:

  • Cannot easily produce very bright colors
  • Metallic colors hard to replicate well
  • Blue hues tend to get muddy and muted

There are also more variations of the CMY model used in different applications. For example, printing uses CMYK with black added. Painters may use traditional RBY primary paint pigments.

True Color Reproduction

To achieve perfect color reproduction and avoid the limitations of RGB or CMY models, additional primary colors can be added. This expands the total color gamut that can be produced. Systems striving for maximum color accuracy may use up to 12 or more primary colors.

Some examples include:

  • Hexachrome – CMYK plus orange and green primaries
  • Pantone – Includes 8 proprietary premixed inks
  • Adobe RGB – Adds orange and green to widen RGB gamut

While using more primaries allows wider color gamuts, it comes at the cost of greater complexity and expense. There are also diminishing returns beyond about a dozen primaries. Most applications only require reasonable color accuracy within standard RGB or CMYK limitations.


In summary, while RGB and CMY have some color reproduction weaknesses, they remain extremely versatile for most needs. Thousands to millions of colors can be generated from just three primaries. This makes RGB and CMY ideal compromises balancing color range and practicality.

With creativity and skill, red, green, blue, cyan, magenta, and yellow can produce a vast palette of hues and shades. So while no color model is perfect, the old primaries still have plenty of life left for dazzling new color combinations.