Listen to part of a lecture in a studio art class.
OK. As you probably know, primary colors are, theoretically speaking, the basic colors from which all other colors can be made.
But as you'll find out when you start working on your painting projects, the three primary colors - red, blue, yellow - don't always make the best secondary colors.
Combining red and blue, you will probably never get a fantastic violet.
To get a nice violet, you'll have to add white.
Combining yellow and blue, you will almost never get a satisfactory green.
You are better off using a pure green pigment.
The idea of primary colors, and specifically the idea of red, yellow and blue being THE primary colors, didn't exist until about 200 years ago.
Until then, the dominant theory about color was one that had been proposed by Isaac Newton.
Newton gave a scientific and objective explanation of colors.
He used a prism to break white light down into the various colors of the spectrum.
And he theorized, rightly so, that different colors are essentially different wavelengths of light.
But he made no mention of primary colors.
That idea came from, or was at least published by a man named Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Goethe was a well-known author.
He wrote many famous novels, plays, poems.
So why did he start thinking about colors?
Well Goethe was part of the Romantic Movement in western literature.
And he was a Romantic, through and through, meaning that he explained objects and phenomena in terms of the spiritual, emotional impact they had, as opposed to explaining them in terms of their scientific nature.
He rejected an objective understanding of color, in favor of a more subjective understanding.
He believed that when we see color, it stimulates our emotions.
And different colors appeal to or inspire different emotions in different people.
That sounds like psychology.
Well, color theory is used in psychology too.
Some psychologists do use their field's version of color theory to diagnose and treat patients.
Um... anyway, Goethe conducted a number of experiments trying to figure out which colors corresponded to which emotions.
And in terms of that goal, he wasn't very successful.
But his experiments actually did show a lot about the relationships between colors themselves, about how colors change when placed next to other colors, about how they interact with one another.
Scientists studying optics and chromatics today still marvel at his findings.
But Goethe wasn't really able to establish a clear connection between colors and emotions.
Then in 1806, he received a letter from a relatively unknown German artist, a painter named Philipp Otto Runge.
In the letter, Runge outlined his own color theory, specifically the connections he made between colors and emotions.
And his ideas about what colors symbolize, about the emotions that different colors inspire were based on the colors of red, yellow and blue.
Runge's choice of red, yellow and blue had nothing to do with what we know from modern-day chromatics.
It had to do with Runge's complex system of symbolism, his experience of nature, particularly with his experience of the quality of light at various times of the day, morning, noon and night.
So each color had a specific symbolic value.
Well, four years later, Goethe published a book entitled Color Lesson.
In Color Lesson, Goethe COINCIDENTLY cites the same colors as primary colors.
At this point, Goethe was already a well-known author, so he was easily able to popularize this idea of primary colors, and specifically the idea of red, yellow and blue as THE primary colors.
But he didn't mention Runge?
Well, he did put Runge's letter in the book, at the end.
But he added a disclaimer implying that Runge's letter didn't influence his work.
Apparently, what Goethe was saying was that they just happened to come up with the same theory at the same time.