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Do red and yellow and blue make black?

Do red and yellow and blue make black?

Quick answer: No, combining red, yellow, and blue paint does not make black. While red, yellow, and blue are considered the primary colors, mixing them together actually makes brown. This is because paints use reflective color mixing, not additive color mixing like light. To make black paint, you need to start with a darker color like blue or purple and mix in its complementary color.

How Paint Mixing Works

To understand why combining red, yellow, and blue paint does not make black, it’s important to understand how paint mixing works compared to light mixing:

  • Light mixing is additive – combining different colored lights makes the color brighter. Red, green, and blue light combined makes white.
  • Paint mixing is subtractive – combining paints makes the color darker. This is because paints absorb and reflect different wavelengths of light.

When working with light, red, green, and blue are the primary colors because you can make any other color by mixing those three. But with paints and pigments, the primary colors are red, yellow, and blue because you can’t mix those from other colors.

What Happens When You Mix RYB Paints

Here’s a look at what happens when you physically mix red, yellow, and blue paint:

  • Red paint absorbs green and blue light and reflects red.
  • Yellow paint absorbs blue light and reflects red and green.
  • Blue paint absorbs red and green light and reflects blue.

When you mix the paints, the resulting color reflects a combination of what is not absorbed. Red and yellow makes orange because both reflect red. Yellow and blue makes green because both reflect green. Red and blue makes purple because both reflect blue.

But when all three primary paint colors are mixed together, what is reflected is the brownish color our eyes see as “mud”. This is because all the colors are absorbing some wavelengths of light, making the mix darker.

How to Make Black Paint

Since mixing RYB paints makes mud, not black, how do you make black paint? Here are a couple options:

  • Start with a darker paint color like blue, purple or magenta and mix in its complementary color (the opposite on the color wheel). The complement will neutralize the hue.
  • Mix equal parts of cyan, magenta, and yellow paint. This creates a very dark brown that our eyes see as black.
  • Buy premade black paint like carbon black or mars black. These contain colorants like charcoal or iron oxide that absorb most visible light.

Light vs. Paint Color Mixing

Here is a comparison of how additive light mixing and subtractive paint mixing work:

Light Mixing (Additive) Paint Mixing (Subtractive)
Primary colors are red, green, and blue Primary colors are red, yellow, and blue
Combining colors makes them brighter Combining colors makes them darker
RGB light makes white RYB paint makes brown
Start with black, add colors Start with white, subtract colors

So while red, yellow, and blue light combined makes white, red, yellow, and blue paint combined makes a muddy brown. To make black paint, you need to mix complements or start with darker paints.

Color Theory Concepts

Here are some key color theory concepts that explain why red, yellow, and blue paint don’t make black:

  • Primary colors – The set of colors that can be mixed to create all other colors. For light it’s RGB, for paint it’s RYB.
  • Secondary colors – Colors created by mixing two primary colors. Red + yellow = orange, yellow + blue = green, blue + red = purple.
  • Tertiary colors – Made by mixing a primary and secondary color. Red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, etc.
  • Complementary colors – Colors opposite each other on the color wheel. Red and green, blue and orange, etc. These create greyscale when mixed.
  • Color temperature – Colors are described as warm or cool. Warm colors like red, orange, yellow; cool colors like blue, purple, green.

Understanding these concepts helps explain why mixing warm RYB paints results in earthy browns instead of a neutral black. You need a color and its complement to cancel each other out.

RYB vs. RGB Color Models

RYB and RGB are different color models that define the primary colors:

  • RYB is used for painting, pigments, dyes, and other subtractive color systems. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue.
  • RGB is used for light sources like TVs and LEDs. The primary colors are red, green, and blue.

RYB and RGB colors combined make very different results:

RYB Mixing RGB Mixing
Red + Yellow = Orange Red + Green = Yellow
Yellow + Blue = Green Green + Blue = Cyan
Blue + Red = Purple Blue + Red = Magenta
Red + Yellow + Blue = Brown Red + Green + Blue = White

RYB follows subtractive color mixing, while RGB follows additive color mixing. This difference is key for why mixing RYB paints makes brown, not black.

How the Human Eye Perceives Color

On a physiological level, our eyes also help explain why red, yellow, and blue paint don’t combine to make black:

  • Cones in our eyes detect red, green, and blue light.
  • The brain processes these signals into all the colors we see.
  • Black is the absence of detectable light.
  • Mixing paints only removes more wavelengths, not all light.

In other words, mixing paints tries to simulate the color processing in our brain by removing wavelengths of light. But it can’t achieve true black because it can’t absorb all visible light the way our eyes can detect black.

History of RYB Color Model

The RYB primary color model dates back to the 18th century when color theory was being investigated:

  • 1704 – Isaac Newton published his color wheel with seven colors – ROYGBIV.
  • 1776 – Ewald Hering proposed opponent process theory of color vision based on red-green and blue-yellow.
  • 1810 – Phillip Otto Runge published the first modern color wheel with red, yellow, and blue as primary colors.
  • 1831 – James Clerk Maxwell demonstrated color photography relied on red, green, and blue. But painting still used RYB.
  • 1935 – International Commission on Illumination defined modern RGB color model.

While RGB is more technically accurate for light and vision, RYB remains useful for describing paint mixtures. Artists continue using RYB as the primary colors for painting.

Other Color Mixing Systems

RYB and RGB are just two examples of color models. There are also:

  • CMY/CMYK – Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks used for printing.
  • HSB – Hue, saturation, brightness model alternative to RGB.
  • CIELAB – Color model to approximate human vision, used for comparisons.
  • Pantone – Proprietary spot color system for printing matches.

While these have specific uses, RYB and RGB are the most common models for understanding color mixing fundamentals.

Digital Color Mixing vs. Paints

Mixing colors digitally in tools like Photoshop or Illustrator gives very different results than mixing paint:

  • Digital uses RGB additive color mixing.
  • Paint uses RYB subtractive color mixing.

So mixing pure red, yellow, and blue in a digital screen will make white. But mixing red, yellow, and blue paint makes brown. This distinction is important for anyone working with both physical and digital media.

Teaching Color Mixing to Children

When teaching color mixing to children, RYB provides a more intuitive model than RGB:

  • Children start mixing paint long before using digital media.
  • RYB follows the logic of combining colors to make new ones.
  • Physical paint mixing shows cause and effect.

Starting with RYB color mixing allows young children to grasp concepts like making secondary colors before introducing RGB and light theory later on.


While red, yellow, and blue are considered the primary colors, mixing red, yellow, and blue paint does not make black. Because of the physics of light absorption and reflection, the combination actually makes brown. To create black paint, you need to mix complements or start with a darker color and neutralize the hue with its opposite. Understanding the differences between RYB subtractive mixing and RGB additive mixing explains why combining red, yellow, and blue light makes white, while combining the paints makes muddy brown.