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What Colors Make Red? Understanding Color

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Mar 30, 2021 2:00:00 PM

General Education



You probably learned in school that red is a primary color, meaning that it can be combined with other primary colors to make new colors like orange and purple. (If you’re new to primary colors, this Sesame Street song explains it well...and it’s catchy!) 

But if red is a primary color...what colors make red? Is it even possible to make red from other colors? 

In order to understand how to make red colour, we need to understand a whole lot about both physics and culture. This article will teach you everything you need to know about what colors make red, like: 

  • A quick primer on what two colors make red
  • A scientific answer to the question, “What is red?” 
  • A walkthrough of how to make red through mixing
  • Examples of different shades of red you can make
  • Three tips for making the perfect shade of red

 There’s a lot to cover, so let’s get started! 


What Colors Make Red?: A Quick Overview 

If you mix yellow and magenta, you’ll end up with red. The hues of each color affect what shade of red you’ll end up with. If you add more magenta, you’ll get a cooler red (like ruby)...whereas more yellow will give you a warmer red (like tomato)! 

But getting the right shade is tricky, and it involves understanding more about how to make red from a scientific perspective. We’ll walk you through everything you need to know below. 



If you want to paint a red would you go about making the color red? Let's see what science can teach us about creating red! 


What Is Red? A Scientific Explanation 

In order to understand what colors make red, you first need to know what light is. (Trust us: this will make sense in a minute). Here’s how Crayola, the masters of color, explain the relationship between color and light:

When light shines on an object some colors bounce off the object and others are absorbed by it. Our eyes only see the colors that are bounced off or reflected.

The sun’s rays contain all the colors of the rainbow mixed together. This mixture is known as white light. When white light strikes a white crayon or marker barrel, it appears white to us because it absorbs no color and reflects all color equally. A black crayon or marker cap absorbs all colors equally and reflects none, so it looks black to us. While artists consider black a color, scientists do not because black is the absence of all color.


Basically, an object's physical makeup causes light (also known as electromagnetic waves) to either be absorbed or reflected. Our eyes are able to see the light that’s reflected off the object...and we perceive that light as color. 

Objects reflect light in different ways, which is why we have so many colors! Sometimes every wavelength of light bounces off of an object, which makes it appear white. Sometimes an object absorbs all wavelengths, making it appear black.

But usually, an object reflects some wavelengths while absorbing others, which is what gives us color. So for example, maybe your favorite shirt is green. That’s because your shirt reflects the green wavelength of light!  

So what is a wavelength of light, exactly? Think about light as if it were water at the beach. Sometimes the waves come in high and close together. At other times, the waves come in low and far apart. If you were to measure the length of those waves, you’d start at the crest (highest point) of one wave and measure to the crest of the next. That would give you the wavelength of the water on the beach. Light works very similarly, except the waves are much smaller and closer together. 

When it comes to light waves, your eyes measure wavelengths as they bounce off of objects...and then your brain translates those into color. That’s why everyone perceives color a little differently

Of course, there are tons of colors out there. The whole range of possible color wavelengths is called the “spectrum.” Here’s what the spectrum looks like: 





Each wavelength of light is measured in nanometers (nm). The longer the wavelength, the “warmer” the color appears. (Don’t worry: we’ll talk about “warm” and “cool” colors later.) But notice that we can only see a tiny portion of the entire spectrum of light--only those wavelengths between about 400 and 800 nanometers. The range that we can see unaided by technology is called the “visible spectrum.”

Keep in mind that there are wavelengths of light that are longer than 800 nanometers and shorter than 400 nanometers...but humans aren’t able to see them! Animals, however, can: bees, snakes, and birds can all see colors outside of our visible light range.  

But back to our visible light spectrum. Check out the diagram above one more time. You’ll notice that red falls at the 700 nanometers in wavelength, and is one of the longer wavelengths than we can see. The distance from crest to crest is just a little thicker than a soap bubble membrane

So, then, what colors make red? If an object is red, that means it absorbs all wavelengths of light except those that fall around 700 nanometers in length. So fire trucks, Red Delicious apples, and even Dorothy’s ruby slippers all reflect the red wavelength!



One way to make red is by mixing magenta and yellow together.


So How Do You Make Red?

Interestingly enough, when you mix together some objects that reflect light differently, their ability to reflect light gets mixed together as well. This happens in two different ways: additive mixing and subtractive mixing.


How to Make Red: Additive Mixing

Additive mixing happens when wavelengths of light combine with one another. This is how your television works! We already know that the red wavelength of light is 700 nm or so. But if two or more other wavelengths combine to equal 700 nm, they can appear red, too. So if an ultraviolet light wave measuring about 250 nm combines with a purple light wave (that’s 450 nm), your eye will perceive it as red! 


How to Make Red: Subtractive Mixing

Subtractive mixing happens when wavelengths are removed from the visible light spectrum through the use of physical mediums, such as paints or dyes. This process is called subtractive color because the colored pigments create layers that absorb some wavelengths and reflect others.

So how do you make red? And what two colors make red? If you mix magenta and yellow, you get red. That’s because when you mix magenta and yellow, the colors cancel out all other wavelengths of light except red. Boom! Now you’ve got the color red. 

That’s why your printer--which only has black, cyan, magenta, and yellow ink cartridges--can print red...even though there isn’t any red ink. 


What Other Colors Can You Make With Red? 

Now that you understand the complex history behind the color red, you’re probably wondering what colors you can make when you combine red with other colors. For example, what color does red and blue make when mixed together? 

Here are some of the most popular colors you can make with red! 


Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are those created when you combine any two primary colors. There are only three of them, so there are only two secondary colors made with red:











Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are created when you combine primary and secondary colors together. The three tertiary colors made with red are: 














Quaternary and Quinary Colors

Quaternary and Quinary Colors are ones when you combine various hues of primary, secondary, and tertiary colors together. There are a nearly infinite number of them, depending upon the amount of each component added.

These colors are also affected by two concepts called tint and shade. Tints are colors made by adding white to another color. So adding white to red creates a tint that we know as pink. 

Shades are made by adding black to another color. Adding black to red gives you a deeper shade of red, like mahogany. 

Here are a few of the most popular quaternary and quinary shades of red: 






























Myths About Red 

Red is actually a pretty complex color. That’s why there are plenty of myths that make understanding how to make red a complicated process. We’re going to debunk two of the most common myths about the color red below.


Myth 1: You Can’t Make Red Because It’s a Primary Color

We can hear you already. “But wait! I learned that red was a primary color in kindergarten and that you couldn’t mix colors to make red. Has my whole life been a lie?!” 

Not exactly. Red is actually an additive primary color. By combining red with another additive color--green or blue, specifically--you can make most of the colors on the visible light spectrum. 

The idea that red, yellow, and blue are primary colors that can’t be created dates back to Aristotle, but it gained popularity in mainstream thought thanks to a 19th century German philosopher named Goethe. Influenced by Newton’s experiments with prisms--Goethe and other German philosophers wrote several books about the “psychological” effects of different colors of light. Basically, they decided that red, yellow, and blue were the three main colors we can see and all other colors are made from those three. 

But like we mentioned earlier, you absolutely can make red out of other colors through additive mixing, too! So the idea that you can’t make red out of other colors isn’t correct. 


Myth 2: Red Is the Warmest Color

Red is considered a “warm” color. Blue is “cool.” The visible spectrum is said to progress from coldest (bluish hues) to hottest (reddish hues). 

That’s because we make emotional associations with certain colors. Things that remind us of fire (red) or the sun (yellow) seem warm to us because we’re taught that they’re hot. Things that are colored more like grass (green) or water or the sky (blue) seem cool to us because we associate them with being refreshing. But these emotional understandings of color are culturally based, which means they aren’t always accurate...and they’re not universal. 

But when it comes to science, the truth is that “warm” and “cool” wavelengths are reversed: wavelengths that are shorter (blue-ish) transmit more energy and wavelengths that are longer (red-ish) transmit less. So, for instance, stars that appear blue to us are those burning hotter than those that appear red or orange. Blue flame burns hotter than orange flame, and so on. So scientifically speaking, red is actually cooler than blue. 




3 Tips for Getting the Hue of Red You Want 

Below are three tips to help you triangulate the exact hue of red you want. We highly recommend using the color matching company Pantone’s online color tool as a way of helping you visualize various hues of red.


Tip 1: Pick Your Hue

In color, “hue” refers to the colored pigment without white or black added. This is the element that creates the pure color. If you’re wanting a brighter, more vivid shade of red, you’ll want to pick a shade with a brighter hue! 


Tip 2: Think About Darkness and Light

The relative lightness or darkness of a color is called its “value.” Typically colors with a lighter value (more white added) feel lighter and easier. If that’s what you’re aiming for, try a shade of red like rose or punch. 

Darker colors (more black added) feel more intimidating and threatening. Great dark, moody shades of red include wine, burgundy, and mahogany. 


Tip 3: Play With Saturation

The amount of color included in a hue relative to the amount of white or black is called its “saturation”. Colors that have very little white or black added are considered more intense, and they make you feel the emotion of the color more vividly. 

Pure red is an example of a super-saturated tone. When you desaturate red, it tends to become more pink. Shades like strawberry and salmon are good examples of this! 




What’s Next? 

If you want to have a career as an artist, going to art school can help you start off strong. Here’s our list of the best art schools in the U.S. so you can start exploring your options! 

Oh, and we can help you nail your college applications so you get into the art program of your dreams, too. 

But maybe you’re more interested in the physics of color. If so, you should consider taking AP Physics 1, 2, or C during high school. You can learn more about each class--and their differences!--in this article. 


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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.

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