Elementary School Teachers Please Stop

Elementary school teachers please stop teaching our children that the primary colors are yellow, red, and blue. This bizarre combination of  additive and subtractive primaries serves only to instill confusion and limit their understanding of the real world.

My son came home last week with this information and in spite off my best attempt to convince him otherwise, he is still convinced that the primary colors are yellow, red, and blue, because that is what the color wheel says. I will have to work on this situation later.

Subtractive color mixing, showing how yellow, magenta, and cyan combine to create a full color image

Subtractive color mixing, showing how yellow, magenta, and cyan combine to create a full color image

Here’s how color actually works:

For printed systems, including photographs, magazines, and inkjet prints, yellow, magenta, and cyan colorants create a full color image.  These colors are the subtractive primaries because each colorant subtracts a portion of the visible spectrum from white light. Some subtractive printing systems also use black to print high-quality text.



Additive color system showing the combination of red, blue, and green lights to produce white light.

Additive color system showing the combination of red, blue, and green lights to produce white light.

TVs or computer monitors, on the other hand, use additive primaries. In this case, red, blue, and green lights add together to create a full color image.

Note that neither system uses yellow, red, and blue.

So why is this information taught? I believe it is an archaic relic from a time when color was less well understood. Now, we know that the only reason a yellow and blue crayons create green is because the blue is typically not a very good blue. Similarly we know that a red crayon already contains yellow so it cannot be a primary color. Let’s stop teaching wrong information.

Please post this information to your Facebook account and forward to your local elementary school. Maybe then we can effect real change.


About Mark Mizen

I have over twenty years professional experience in all aspects of photography and digital imaging. I am Chair of the ISO WG5 TG2 committee responsible for physical properties and durability of imaging material and am currently with HID Global working on systems for security printing for IDs, licenses, and credit cards. Previously, I was Director of Digital Development at Creative Memories from 2009 to 2012 and was responsible for the Creative Memories digital products and services. I also established and directed the Creative Memories Technology Center, which evaluated new products prior to product introduction, assisted with production difficulties, and provided technical information to support product sales.
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4 Responses to Elementary School Teachers Please Stop

  1. Monica Lee says:

    I find this fascinating. I studied art in college, and I carried with me the concepts of the color wheel from elementary school. When I entered the printing biz (in newspapers, where CMYK is used), I never thought about the conflict between the two theories. You make a great point. Thanks for this.

  2. You’re really going to hate this video, Mark: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yu44JRTIxSQ

    When I saw this, I was excited to have OKGO and Sesame Street do a video on color, but my brain exploded when I saw what colors they used.

    Wikipedia’s discussion of the “historical” RYB color model: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RYB_color_model

    “This theory became dogma, despite abundant evidence that red, yellow, and blue primaries cannot mix all other colours, and has survived in colour theory to the present day.” Dogma is so hard to displace….

  3. Mark Mizen says:

    Thanks for sharing the Sesame Street Video. I have a new found lack of appreciation for Sesame Street. I am glad to see that a lot of people dislike the video and that many of the comments reflect a better understanding of color than exists on Sesame Street.

  4. Pingback: Wrong Color | All About Images Blog

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