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What are subtractive and additive primary colors?

What are subtractive and additive primary colors?

Primary colors are sets of colors that can be combined to create all other colors in a given color space. There are two main types of primary color models: additive and subtractive. Additive primaries are used for light-emitting systems like computer screens, while subtractive primaries are used for light-reflecting systems like paints and inks. Understanding the differences between additive and subtractive primaries is key for artists, designers, photographers and anyone working with color.

What are Additive Primaries?

Additive primary colors are sets of colors that can be combined to create a range of colors by adding light. The classic set of additive primaries is red, green and blue (RGB). When red, green and blue light are mixed together in equal amounts, they produce white light. Varying the intensities of the individual primary colors allows for a large gamut of colors to be produced additively.

Computer and TV screens utilize the RGB additive primary system. Pixels on a screen emit different amounts of red, green and blue light to create the colors we see. For example, yellow is produced by combining high intensities of red and green light from pixels, with little or no blue. White is produced by turning all pixels to maximum red, green and blue. Black is the absence of all three primaries.

By mixing different intensities of the red, green and blue additive primaries, screens can reproduce a wide range of colors. This makes RGB ideal for representing colors digitally. Most image editing and graphics programs use the RGB color mode.

Key Facts About Additive Primaries

– Additive primaries produce colors by combining light.

– The standard additive primaries are red, green and blue (RGB).

– Mixing additive primaries makes colors brighter, eventually producing white.

– RGB is used for screens, displays and other light-emitting devices.

– RGB is the basis for representing color digitally.

What are Subtractive Primaries?

Subtractive primary colors are sets of colors that create a range of colors by subtracting wavelengths of light. The classic set of subtractive primaries is cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY or CMYK when black is included). When cyan, magenta and yellow pigments are mixed together, they absorb most visible light wavelengths, producing black. Varying the amounts of the subtractive primaries allows for a wide gamut of colors to be produced by subtraction.

Paints, inks, dyes and other coloring agents utilize the CMY/CMYK subtractive primary system. These media contain colorants that selectively absorb some wavelengths of light while reflecting others. For example, magenta absorbs green light while reflecting red and blue light. Yellow absorbs blue light while reflecting red and green. Cyan absorbs red light while reflecting green and blue.

By overlaying subtractive primaries in different amounts, a wide range of colors can be reproduced. For example, red can be produced by overlaying magenta and yellow colorants which together absorb green and blue light. White occurs when no colorants are applied so all light is reflected. Black is produced when cyan, magenta and yellow completely absorb all visible wavelengths.

Key Facts About Subtractive Primaries

– Subtractive primaries produce colors by selectively absorbing wavelengths of light.

– The standard subtractive primaries are cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY).

– Mixing subtractive primaries makes colors darker, eventually producing black.

– CMY and CMYK are used for inks, dyes, paints and other coloring media.

– CMYK is the basis for color printing and reproduction.

Comparing Additive and Subtractive Primaries

Although additive RGB and subtractive CMY are considered complementary color systems, they have important differences:

Mixing Behavior

– Additive colors get brighter when mixed, producing white.

– Subtractive colors get darker when mixed, producing black.

Primary Colors

– The additive primaries are red, green and blue.

– The subtractive primaries are cyan, magenta and yellow.


– RGB is used for light-emitting media like screens.

– CMYK is used for light-reflecting media like inks.

Color Representation

– RGB defines colors based on mixtures of red, green and blue light.

– CMYK defines colors based on amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow and black pigments.

Digital vs Print

– RGB is the basis for digital images, graphics and website colors.

– CMYK is used for preparing images and graphics for professional printing.

Additive RGB Subtractive CMY/CMYK
Light emitting Light absorbing
Red, green, blue primaries Cyan, magenta, yellow primaries
Mixing makes colors brighter Mixing makes colors darker
Used for screens, displays, digital images Used for inks, dyes, paints, printing
Basis for digital color representation Basis for printed color reproduction

Mixing Subtractive and Additive Systems

Although additive RGB and subtractive CMY systems are fundamentally different, there are some overlaps between them. Converting between RGB and CMYK is common when preparing digital graphics and images for professional printing.

Some key points about combining subtractive and additive color systems:

– Pure cyan, magenta and yellow pigments absorb red, green and blue light respectively, so they are complements of the RGB primaries.

– RGB monitors can display representations of CMYK colors, but may not exactly match printed CMYK output.

– CMYK inks can approximate RGB colors within the limits of the printer’s gamut, but may not produce highly saturated colors.

– Black ink is added to CMYK to improve contrast and help produce true neutral blacks.

– Color management helps match colors between RGB and CMYK color spaces.

– For best print results, artwork is best created directly in CMYK rather than converting from RGB.

So while RGB and CMYK are fundamentally different, workflows often require converting between the two systems. Careful color management provides the best results when matching colors between additive and subtractive systems.

Real-World Use of Additive and Subtractive Primaries

Understanding primary colors helps explain how color is produced and reproduced in various media. Here are some common examples:

Screens and Digital Images

RGB additive primaries are ideal for screens and digital images. Pixels directly emit red, green and blue light which can be mixed to produce a wide range of colors. RGB allows storing images digitally while maintaining full color information. Digital image formats like JPEG and PNG use the RGB color space.

Printing and Graphic Design

CMYK subtractive primaries are essential for professional printing. Combining cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks reproduces a wide color gamut for printed materials. CMYK is also used in graphic design programs for creating artwork destined for print.

Painting and Drawing

Paints and drawing media utilize subtractive color mixing. Overlapping strokes of different colors subtracts more wavelengths, darkening the mixture. Many painting media such as watercolor approximate the CMY primaries. Understanding subtractive mixing helps artists manipulate color.

Stage Lighting

RGB additive mixing is important for stage lighting. Combining red, green and blue lights allows a wide palette of colors to be projected. LED stage lights use individual red, green and blue elements that can be mixed to produce any desired color.


While photographic processes are technically subtractive, photos are encoded digitally using RGB values. However, CMYK conversion is important when reproducing photos in print. Understanding both additive and subtractive color helps photographers capture, edit and reproduce images.


Additive and subtractive primary color systems provide the foundation for working with color across different media. While screens use the RGB additive primaries, printing uses the CMYK subtractive primaries. Understanding the differences, relationships and conversions between these systems is key for properly managing color. Mastering color starts with understanding the basics of additive and subtractive primary colors.