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Why isn t yellow in RGB?

Why isn t yellow in RGB?

RGB (red, green, and blue) is a color model that is widely used in digital imaging systems. It allows a broad range of colors to be displayed using combinations of only three primary colors – red, green, and blue. However, some colors like yellow, cyan, and magenta cannot be reproduced in the RGB model using only those three primaries. This leads to the common question – why isn’t yellow included as a primary color in the RGB model?

How RGB Color Model Works

The RGB color model is an additive color model. This means that colors are produced by combining varying amounts of red, green, and blue light. By mixing different intensities of these three primary colors, a wide gamut of colors can be created.

In a digital imaging system, each pixel is assigned an RGB value, specifying the intensity of red, green and blue components for that pixel. This value is typically represented as a triplet (R,G,B) where each component has a value between 0 to 255. For example, a bright red color would have an RGB value of (255,0,0). By combining different RGB triplets, millions of colors can be reproduced on a monitor or display.

Limitations of RGB Model

Despite its versatility, the RGB model has some limitations. One key limitation is that it cannot reproduce some colors like yellow, cyan and magenta using only its primary colors.

For instance, there is no combination of red, green and blue light that can produce pure yellow light. This is because yellow is a secondary color made by combining red and green light. In the same way, cyan is made by combining green and blue, while magenta is made by combining red and blue.

Since the RGB model lacks these secondary colors as primaries, it has to simulate them by mixing its available primaries. This means the yellow, cyan and magenta colors produced are not spectrally pure.

Why Yellow is Not Included

This brings us to the main question – why did the RGB model not include secondary colors like yellow as primaries instead of green and blue?

There are a few technical reasons for this:

Limitation of Three Primaries

The RGB model was designed to work with cathode ray tube (CRT) displays. CRT displays combine colors by firing electron beams at pixels coated with red, green and blue phosphors.

These early displays were limited in the number of electron guns (and thus primaries) they could accomodate. Using only three primaries was the most cost-effective and practical choice.

Role of Human Vision

The primaries chosen also took the human eye’s color perception into account. Red, green and blue correspond closely to the peak sensitivities of the three types of cone cells in our eyes that detect color.

Using these primaries allowed the widest gamut of colors to be reproduced for human vision, despite being limited to only three primaries.

Yellow as Derived Color

Since yellow is a secondary color derived from combining red and green light, it can be sufficiently simulated in the RGB model by mixing appropriate amounts of the red and green primaries.

In including yellow as a primary, one of the existing primaries (green or blue) would have had to be excluded. This would have reduced the range of colors that could be reproduced.

Advantages of Red, Green, Blue

The red, green and blue primaries used in RGB have some specific advantages:

High Luminosity

Red, green and blue correspond to colors with high luminosity or brightness as perceived by humans. This allows bright and vivid colors to be reproduced.

Wide Color Gamut

The gamut or range of colors enabled by red, green and blue primaries is wider compared to other 3-color systems. This wide gamut covers most colors visible to the human eye.

Compatibility with Human Vision

As mentioned earlier, the peak sensitivities of the three cone cells in our eyes closely match red, green and blue wavelengths. This makes RGB colors ideal for display purposes.

Cost Effectiveness

RGB systems are simpler and more cost-effective to build than systems with more primaries. This made RGB technology commercially practical.

Other Color Models

While RGB is the predominant model used in digital imaging, some other color models do use yellow as a primary color instead of green. These include:

RYB Color Model

The RYB (red, yellow, blue) color model is used traditionally by artists for painting and pigments. Since yellow, red and blue cannot be mixed from other colors, they work as ideal primaries for pigment-based color mixing. RYB has a smaller gamut compared to RGB.

CMY Color Model

The CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow) model is a subtractive model used for colored printing and inks. Since cyan, magenta and yellow are the secondary colors, combining them can absorb all wavelengths of light and produce black. However, CMY has a limited gamut compared to RGB.

Color Model Primary Colors Type Applications
RGB Red, Green, Blue Additive Computer displays, televisions
RYB Red, Yellow, Blue Subtractive Traditional painting, pigments
CMY/CMYK Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, (Key) Subtractive Printing, Inkjet printers

Mixing Colors in RGB Model

While yellow is not a primary color in the RGB model, we can still mix shades of yellow by combining appropriate amounts of the red and green primaries.

Some examples of mixing yellow tones in RGB:

Color RGB Values
Bright Yellow (255, 255, 0)
Soft Yellow (255, 224, 130)
Golden Yellow (255, 215, 0)
Mustard Yellow (255, 219, 88)

By mixing higher values of red and green, brighter and more saturated yellows can be produced. Lower red/green ratios result in softer, pale yellows. Adjusting the green component allows creating different yellow hues.

Digital Image Processing

In more advanced digital imaging systems, yellow can be included as a fourth color component along with RGB primaries.

For example, scanners capture data as RGBY instead of just RGB. The additional yellow component allows more accurate color reproduction when digitizing printed images, documents, etc.

Some high-end printers also use additional ink cartridges like yellow and black (CMYK) for wider gamut printing beyond just CMY.

Human Vision vs. Technology Limitations

In the end, the omission of yellow from the RGB primaries has more to do with technological constraints faced when the model was created, rather than human color vision.

Our eyes can perceive yellow just as readily as red or green shades. But display technologies at the time could not accommodate more than three primaries effectively.

As display and imaging technologies advance, adding extra primary colors beyond RGB for wider gamuts is becoming viable. This means yellow may eventually make its way into being a primary color in future digital systems.


While yellow is clearly an important color in human vision, art and the natural world, it is not included as a primary in the RGB color model due to the technical limitations faced when the model was formulated. Instead, yellow is derived in RGB by mixing appropriate ratios of the red and green primaries.

This allows yellow and a wide range of other colors to be reproduced on RGB displays designed for compatibility with human vision. More advanced imaging technologies today are starting to expand beyond RGB to additional primaries like yellow and black for wider color gamuts.

So in summary, the omission of yellow from RGB has more to do with the restrictions of early display hardware, rather than yellow not being an essential color in human perception or pigment-based arts. As display technology progresses, we may well see yellow become a standard fourth primary in the future.