Tertiary Colors Demystified: A Dive into Artistic Palettes

Have you ever wondered what tertiary colors are? You’re probably familiar with primary and secondary colors. But the tertiary colors are less well known. 

So, let’s look at some examples of tertiary colors on the color wheel. We’ll dive into color theory and gain a deeper understanding of tertiary colors. 

If you look at a color wheel, you might notice that the tertiary colors are the most numerous. Understanding how to mix these colors will offer you more options as an artist. You’ll find it easier to create nuanced colors that are more realistic and lively.  

In this article, I’ll explain why you need to know about tertiary colors. Then, we’ll take a close look at what tertiary colors are and how to make them. And you’ll learn how to use them effectively in your artwork. 

What are Tertiary Colors?

Understanding tertiary colors is a bit complicated. That’s because there are different theories about how to make them, as explained below.

Theory 1: Mixing Two Secondary Colors = Tertiary Color

One theory suggests that a tertiary color is the result of mixing two secondary colors in an equal ratio. However, this method applies only to traditional art using any pigment, paint, or dye. It’s not relevant to mixing different colored lights or digital art. 

So, this theory is limited in application and not as commonly used in practice. There are three tertiary colors according to this theory:

what are tertiary colors orange + purple = brown
  • Brown (the result of mixing orange and purple)
tertiary color orange + green = olive green
  • Olive (the result of mixing orange and green)
tertiary color purple + green = salt
  • Slate (the result of mixing purple and green)

These colors don’t appear on the color wheel. So, we won’t focus on this theory for the rest of the article.

Theory 2: Mixing a Primary + a Secondary Color = Tertiary Color

The second theory says that mixing a primary and a secondary color makes a tertiary color. It’s the most commonly accepted theory and the one that the color wheel demonstrates. So, we’ll look closer at this theory. 

Finally, some people believe you can make a tertiary color by mixing two primary colors. One of the primary colors in the mixture is fully saturated, and the other is half saturated. 

So, in effect, it works the same as mixing a primary and a secondary color due to the ratios used.

But it’s easy to see how people get confused about tertiary colors! 

The Different Color Systems

different color systems

Let’s backtrack a bit. To understand tertiary colors, you need to know that there are several color systems. 

You probably learned about the traditional color system in art class at school. We call this the RYB color system, as its primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. 

The RYB color system dates back centuries. Artists and scientists have long used it to understand how colors work. And it’s still useful for anyone who works with traditional art media like paints and ink. However, it’s also considered the most outdated. 

More recently, the RGB color system has become popular. In this color system, green replaces yellow, while red and blue remain. The reason is that these are the primary colors according to the light spectrum. You make white light when you mix red, green, and blue light. 

Also, the RGB color system has a wider color gamut. That means you can make a greater range of colors compared with the RYB model. 

There’s also the CYMK color system, mainly used for printing. This method uses the same colors as the RGB system but reverses the primary and secondary colors. 

So, the tertiary colors in the RYB system will differ from those in the RGB system. 

How the Color Wheel Works 

how the color wheel works

A color wheel is a helpful tool for representing colors and their relationships. It displays primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. 

It’s easy to understand the similarities between colors and their temperatures – cold or warm. And you can also look up complementary (or opposite) colors. 

So, knowing how to use a color wheel is an essential skill for artists. 

We’ll use the RYB color model to understand the color wheel in this case. It’s still the most common system for any kind of traditional art. 

The Primary Colors

On the color wheel, you’ll see the primary colors – red, yellow, and blue. You can’t make a primary color by mixing other colors together. But you can make almost any other color using the primary colors. And so, they are the foundation of color mixing. 

The Secondary Colors

The secondary colors – orange, green, and purple – sit between the primary colors. They are the result of mixing two primary colors in a 1:1 ratio. 

As a side note, the secondary colors in the RGB system are magenta, cyan, and yellow.

The Tertiary Colors

And finally, the tertiary colors. These are the most numerous on the color wheel, as there are six ways to make tertiary shades. So, there are six tertiary colors.

When you mix a primary color and a secondary color, you create a tertiary color. For example, red and orange make red-orange.

So, it makes sense that each tertiary color sits between the primary and secondary colors used to mix it. You’ll find red-orange between red and orange on the color wheel. And because of this placement, tertiary colors are sometimes called intermediate colors. 

Examples of Tertiary Colors on the Color Wheel 

Now, you understand how we can make tertiary colors. It’s time to take a closer look at each tertiary color on the color wheel. I’ve gone into detail on each of them below. 

You’ll notice that their technical names aren’t the most descriptive. They’re made up of the primary and secondary colors mixed to make each tertiary color. That can be helpful when you want to know how to mix a particular shade, but the names aren’t very inspiring! 

But each color also has a common name as well as its technical name, which I’ve shared below. Often, artists prefer these names as they are more interesting. 


tertiary colors  yellow orange

Yellow-orange is a bright, citrussy shade made by mixing yellow and orange. It sits between orange and yellow on the color wheel. It’s also known as amber. 


yellow green

You’ll find yellow-green between yellow and green on the color wheel. It’s a sharp, fresh shade between these two colors. We also call it chartreuse. 


tertiary colors blue green

You may know this color as teal. We make it by mixing green and blue together, and it sits between these colors on the color wheel.


tertiary colors  blue violet

When you mix the primary blue with the secondary color violet, you create blue-violet. This tertiary color is sometimes just called violet, which is a little confusing. But it has a blue undertone and sits between blue and violet on the color wheel. My guide to making blue-violet color is helpful if you want to mix your own paints.  


tertiary colors  red violet

In the same way, we make red-violet by combining violet and red. This tertiary color is a warmer shade found between red and violet. It’s also sometimes referred to as magenta. 


tertiary colors red orange

When you mix red and orange, you create the tertiary color technically known as red-orange. It’s also known as vermillion. 

Tertiary Colors in the CYMK and RGB Color Systems

We explained the difference between the color systems above. As you now know, the tertiary colors in RGB and CYMK differ from the RYB model. 

Here are examples of the tertiary colors in these color systems: 

tertiary colors
  • Orange (made by mixing red and yellow)
  • Rose (made by mixing red and magenta)
  • Azure (made by mixing cyan and blue)
  • Violet (made by mixing magenta and blue)
  • Chartreuse green (made by mixing yellow and green)
  • Spring green (made by mixing cyan and green)

As you can see, there are some similarities between the tertiary colors of the RYB model. But they aren’t exactly the same. Knowing these differences is useful for artists as they work with color. 

The Wrap Up 

Hopefully, you have a much deeper understanding of this tricky subject, tertiary colors. As you’ve seen, it’s not as straightforward as it first seems. 

But knowing the tertiary colors in each color model is essential for any artist. It will make you more assured and confident in using and mixing colors. You can apply this information to both digital and traditional art forms. 

Let me know if you have any questions about tertiary colors in the comments below! 

And follow for more color theory tips and inspiration! 


Outmane is the founder of Proactive Creative. He is an artist/designer.

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