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What is secondary and intermediate color?

Colors can be classified into primary, secondary, and intermediate colors. Primary colors are colors that cannot be created by mixing other colors together. The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. Secondary colors are created by mixing two primary colors together. For example, mixing red and yellow makes orange. Intermediate colors, sometimes called tertiary colors, are made by mixing a primary color with a secondary color. For example, red and orange makes red-orange.

Primary Colors

The primary colors are red, blue, and yellow. These are the only true colors because all other colors are derived from some combination of red, blue, and yellow. For example, green is made by mixing blue and yellow. Purple is made by mixing red and blue. Primary colors are the foundation of color theory and allow all possible hues to be created.

Red, blue, and yellow are primary colors for both additive color systems, like light, and subtractive color systems, like paints. This is because the primary colors correlate to specific wavelengths of light. Red has the longest wavelength, followed by green and then blue with the shortest wavelength. When all primary colors of light are combined, they make white light. For pigments like paint, the opposite is true. Combining all primary paint colors makes black.

Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are made by mixing two primary colors together in equal amounts. The secondary colors are green, orange, and purple.

  • Green is made by mixing blue and yellow.
  • Orange is made by mixing red and yellow.
  • Purple is made by mixing red and blue.

Secondary colors sit between primary colors on the color wheel. They are made up of a combination of two primary color wavelengths. For example, orange is made up of red’s longer wavelengths combined with yellow’s medium wavelengths.

Properties of Secondary Colors

Secondary colors exhibit properties of both component primary colors. For example:

  • Green sits between calm blue and cheerful yellow on the color wheel, so it exhibits both a sense of stability and optimism.
  • Orange embodies the energy of red and the joy of yellow, creating a vibrant, lively color.
  • Purple contains the power of red and the dignity of blue for a regal color.

Understanding these properties allows choosing appropriate secondary colors for designs needing certain moods or atmospheres.

Intermediate/Tertiary Colors

Intermediate, or tertiary, colors are made by mixing a primary color with a secondary color. Some examples include:

  • Red-orange: Mix of red and orange
  • Yellow-orange: Mix of yellow and orange
  • Yellow-green: Mix of yellow and green
  • Blue-green: Mix of blue and green
  • Blue-violet: Mix of blue and purple
  • Red-violet: Mix of red and purple

There are 6 tertiary colors, corresponding to the 6 intervals between primary and secondary colors on the color wheel. Tertiary colors exhibit a blend of the characteristics of the two component colors.

Creating Tertiary Colors

To make a tertiary color, first determine the two component colors. For example, for green-yellow:

  1. Green is made of blue and yellow
  2. Therefore, green-yellow contains blue, yellow, and more yellow

The proportions affect the final result. Using equal parts green and yellow will make a balanced yellow-green. Using more yellow makes it yellow-green. More green yields green-yellow. Adjusting the proportions creates varieties of a tertiary color.

Uses of Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors have many uses including:

  • Painting – Expanding an artist’s palette
  • Design – Subtle background colors
  • Landscaping – Flower and foliage colors
  • Fashion – New shades for dyed textiles
  • Printing – Precision color matching
  • Decorating – Unique color schemes

Their lower color saturation makes tertiary colors are more subtle than primary and secondary colors. This allows flexibility in fine-tuning a color palette.

Color Wheel Showing Primary, Secondary, and Intermediate Colors

Here is a color wheel showing the relationships between the primary, secondary, and intermediate colors:

Primary Secondary Intermediate
Red Orange Red-orange
Yellow Green Yellow-green
Blue Purple Blue-purple

This wheel demonstrates how secondary colors lie between two primary colors, while tertiary colors fill in the gaps between primary and secondary colors. This allows artists to create a wide spectrum of hues.

Color Mixing: Combining Primary Colors

Primary colors can be mixed together to form secondary and intermediate colors. Here is what happens when you combine the primary colors:

  • Red + Yellow = Orange
  • Yellow + Blue = Green
  • Blue + Red = Purple

Mixing equal parts of two primary colors makes a pure, saturated secondary color halfway between them on the color wheel. Changing the proportions shifts the resulting color toward one primary or the other.

Mixing Process for Paints

Here is the process for mixing secondary paint colors:

  1. Place a dollop of the first primary color on a palette.
  2. Add an equal dollop of the second primary color.
  3. Use a paintbrush or palette knife to thoroughly blend the two colors together.
  4. The resulting color should be the secondary color between the two primaries.
  5. Adjust proportions as needed to shift the hue.

Mixing Process for Light

Mixing colored light, such as for theater lighting, follows a similar process:

  1. Select filters for the two primary colors.
  2. Overlap the beams so they mix evenly.
  3. The overlap will produce the secondary color between the primaries.
  4. Alter intensities to adjust proportions and hue.

Color Mixing: Combining Secondary Colors

Mixing two secondary colors together creates a tertiary (intermediate) color. For example:

  • Orange + Purple = Red-purple
  • Green + Orange = Yellow-green
  • Purple + Green = Blue-green

Since secondary colors contain two primaries, mixing them brings together those primaries into a blended tertiary color. Adjusting the amounts shifts the balance toward one secondary or the other.

Mixing Process for Secondary Colors

Here is how to mix secondary paint colors:

  1. Place a medium dollop of the first secondary color.
  2. Add a small dollop of the second secondary color.
  3. Blend thoroughly to make the tertiary mix.
  4. Adjust proportions as desired to fine-tune the hue.

The same method applies for mixing colored lighting gels. Blending secondary colors of light produces subtler tertiary shades.

Using Complementary Colors from Opposite Sides of the Wheel

Colors on opposite sides of the color wheel are considered complementary colors. These include:

  • Red and Green
  • Yellow and Purple
  • Blue and Orange

Complementary color pairs contrast strongly with each other when placed side-by-side. This contrast can help certain elements stand out. Complementary colors also create vibrant tertiary colors when mixed.

Benefits of Complementary Colors

Using complementary color pairs offers advantages including:

  • Contrast – The high contrast draws attention
  • Vibrancy – Mixing complements makes vivid tertiary colors
  • Harmony – Opposite colors balance each other
  • Dynamic – Energetic color combination

However, using pure complements can also be jarring. Adjusting the saturation helps find a harmonious blend.

Mixing Complementary Colors

Mixing complementary colors requires carefully balancing the proportions. Here is one approach:

  1. Choose a dominant color for the overall hue.
  2. Add very small amounts of the complementary color.
  3. Gradually increase the complementary color to enhance the vibrancy.
  4. Stop when the color achieves the desired contrast and energy.

Use this controlled approach to mix striking tertiary colors that retain harmony. Complementary colors can be powerful when used strategically.

Color Temperature: Warm and Cool Colors

Colors also differ in temperature, from warm to cool. Warm colors remind us of things like fire and sunlight. Cool colors are more associated with water, ice, and sky.

Warm Colors

Warm colors include:

  • Red
  • Orange
  • Yellow
  • Tertiary mixes with warm bases like red-orange

These colors evoke warmth, comfort, and energy. Use warm colors together to create lively, vibrant effects. Orange is considered the warmest color.

Cool Colors

Cool colors include:

  • Blue
  • Green
  • Purple
  • Tertiary mixes like blue-green

These colors feel cool and calm. They work well together for serene, tranquil color schemes. Blue and green are the coolest colors.

Warm and Cool Color Harmony

Warm and cool colors contrast effectively when used together in a balanced way. The warmth evokes positive feelings while the cool colors soothe. Examples include:

  • A sunny yellow and sky blue
  • A grass green and terra cotta
  • A vibrant red-orange and tranquil blue-purple

Mix the temperatures for visually engaging palettes that bring energy and tranquility together.

Color Context and Perception

The perception of color is complex. Colors exhibit different properties depending on usage and context. The same color can elicit varying psychological responses. Context always affects how color is experienced. Some factors that influence color perception include:

  • Adjacent colors – Placement next to contrasting or similar colors
  • Lighting – Effects of different types of light on hue
  • Size – How large or small the colored area appears
  • Texture – Interaction with varied material textures
  • Culture – Cultural color symbolism and associations

With so many variables, the same color can seem to shift in appearance. Always view color in its actual context.

Color Perception is Subjective

Since personal experiences and associations help shape color perception, it remains fundamentally subjective. The range of vision and color sensitivities also varies. For example, color blindness or visual impairments affect how colors are perceived.

This means there can be reasonable differences in how people experience even basic colors like red and green. There are few fixed absolutes when it comes to color perception. The context and viewer always shape the response.

Practical Implications

Subjective color perception has implications for many fields including:

  • Design – Select colors based on target user factors
  • Marketing – Research color associations of key demographics
  • Environmental Design – Consider how lighting affects color mood
  • Fashion – Understand how colors complement different complexions

Since color has no universally consistent meaning, smart color choices require considering the intended viewers and real-world context.


Understanding primary, secondary, and intermediate colors allows strategically creating color palettes with various moods and contrasts. Mixing color pigments or light combines wavelengths to form new hues. Complementary colors from opposite sides of the wheel create vivid contrast when paired skillfully.

Color also exhibits warm or cool properties for dynamic effects. But perception of color remains subjective to factors like adjacent colors, lighting, culture, and the viewer’s own experiences. For effective and practical use of color, always consider the specific context and audience.

With an insightful color strategy, any composition can harness the immense power of color to create intended responses and convey meaningful information. A thoughtful understanding of fundamental color principles provides a strong foundation for working with color in countless applications.