What is Color Bias?

Christy Olsen

Manufacturers that make paints to sell commercially use traditional pigments, but each pigment or manufactured brand of paint may have a slightly different process or recipe.

The Traditional Primary Colors of Red, Blue and Yellow

In fact, according to the visible spectrum of light or within the colors that the human eye can see, no pigment or manufactured paint is ever really an actual "primary color" due to its "undertone." Traditional primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. However, most traditional pigments have an undertone known as "color bias."

Primary Colors

Color bias, or undertones, is essential in mixing secondary and tertiary colors. What is an undertone? It's the temperature of each hue. Each traditional primary (red, blue, and yellow) has an undertone that leans toward one of the secondary colors (orange, green, and violet) on the traditional color wheel.

Traditional Primary Colors: Blue, Red, and Yellow

For example, a red will lean towards one of the secondary colors, such as a red-orange or a red-violet. The same is true for blue. It will either be blue-green or blue-violet. And yellow, which would lean towards a green-yellow or orange-yellow.

Color Bias

Colors or pigments that are warm versus cool are relative. This means that you must compare one color swatch to another because colors can be optically deceiving. For example, pink is the color of Valentine's Day. We think of pink as a warm color. However, when pink is next to red, it becomes a cool color compared to red. These variations may seem insignificant, but they have a considerable impact when mixing color. 

You'll get good results if you use traditional primaries (red, blue, and yellow) to create secondary colors, such as orange or green. However, as shown below, if you use a cool blue and a warm red to mix purple or violet, you get a muddy or dull purple.

Making Mud

Today, according to physicists studying the visible spectrum of light, the primary colors are not just blue, red, or yellow. They are specifically cyan, magenta, and yellow. If you want vibrant secondary and tertiary colors, use modern primary colors (cyan, magenta, and yellow). Cyan (C), which is not just any blue. It is a cool blue. Magenta (M) is pinkish-red, and Yellow (Y) is warm.

Modern Primary Colors: Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y)

If you don't have paints close to cyan, magenta, or a warm yellow, use the two primary color systems, two colors for each primary, one warm and one cool, to get vibrant secondary colors, as shown below.

Traditional Primary Colors with Undertones

If you are interested in learning more, check our color systems.

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