What are Tertiary Colors?

Generally speaking, tertiary colors are created by mixing equal amounts of a primary color with a secondary color in a given color space. On a color wheel, tertiary colors are located in between the primary and secondary colors that they were mixed from. This is why they are also called intermediate colors. Meanwhile, there is no single set of tertiary colors; they vary according to the color system they are operated under.

In order to understand what tertiary colors mean, one has to have a general knowledge of color spaces, as well as the primary and secondary colors in those given color spaces.

What is a Color Model?

A color model is the abstract system under which at least three colors are considered as primaries. These primary colors are used to create secondary and tertiary colors within the system. In the modern times, these color models have been developed for different purposes, each creating universal standards for its use. These models facilitate achieving the desired color universally. Various color models are used for print, screens, computers, fabrics and other purposes.

How are Tertiary Colors Made?

Tertiary colors are basically formed by mixing equal amounts of a primary color and a secondary color in a given color system. While this is the more common definition, another description for tertiary colors is given by color theorists such as Moses Harris and Josef Albers. This definition suggests that tertiary colors are formed by mixing pairs of secondary colors. This approach is more commonly applied in painting.

What follows is that tertiary colors can be produced (i) by mixing a primary and a secondary color in equal proportions or (ii) by mixing two secondary colors in a given color space.

There are two sets of tertiary colors, one for the RGB color wheel and one for the RYB color wheel. Both of these color models have six tertiary colors each. On the color wheels, these tertiaries sit in between the primary and secondaries that they were produced from. 

Tertiary Colors in RYB Color Model

Being the most traditional and historical color model, RYB is the abbreviation for Red, Yellow and Blue. This color system is mostly used for painting and interior design. The primary colors in this system are red, yellow and blue. The secondary colors -produced by mixing these primaries- are orange, purple and green. Thus, the tertiary colors on the RYB color wheel are as follows:

In the RYB system, tertiary colors are also named by first the primary and then the secondary colors that they were mixed from.

Tertiary Colors in RGB and CMYK Color Models

Known also as the light model, the primary colors in the RGB color wheel are the primary colors of light, namely red, green, and blue. The secondary colors in this additive color system are cyan, magenta, and yellow. 

Notice that the secondary colors of the additive RGB model are the primary colors of the subtractive CMYK (print) model. In turn, the primary colors of the CMYK are the secondaries of the RGB. Considering that tertiary colors are produced by mixing primaries and secondaries, both the RGB and CMYK have the same set of tertiary colors. 

These tertiaries are as follows:


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