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What are the subtractive secondary colors?

What are the subtractive secondary colors?

The subtractive primary colors are an important concept in color theory and art. When light shines on an object, some colors are absorbed while others are reflected. The subtractive primary colors refer to the colors that absorb certain wavelengths of light. The three subtractive primary colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow. When these three colors are combined in equal amounts, they produce black. Understanding subtractive colors helps explain how color works in painting, printing, and other applications that use reflected rather than emitted light.

What are Subtractive Colors?

Subtractive colors refer to what happens when an object absorbs certain wavelengths of light and reflects others back to our eyes. Our eyes perceive the reflected wavelengths as color. In subtractive color systems, each color that is absorbed subtracts from the wavelengths that are reflected.

The primary subtractive colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow because they each absorb or subtract two of the three additive primary colors (red, green, and blue light).

Subtractive Color Absorbs/Subtracts
Cyan Red and Green
Magenta Green and Blue
Yellow Blue and Red

For example, the color cyan absorbs wavelengths of red and green light while reflecting blue. When all wavelengths are absorbed, we see black. When cyan, magenta, and yellow pigments or dyes are combined, they absorb all visible wavelengths of light and create black.

The subtractive primary colors are important for color mixing and printing. Unlike additive colors that emit light directly to our eyes, subtractive color starts with white light and subtracts wavelengths as it reflects off a surface. This is why cyan, magenta, and yellow are used in color printing – their absorption overlaps to create a range of hues.

Overlapping Subtractive Colors

When two subtractive primaries overlap, they combine to create a new secondary color:

Overlapping Colors Create
Cyan + Magenta Blue
Cyan + Yellow Green
Magenta + Yellow Red

As more colors are combined, more wavelengths are absorbed, resulting in darker hues. Overlapping all three subtractive primaries (cyan, magenta, and yellow) absorbs all visible wavelengths of light, creating black.

The secondary colors created by combining the subtractive primaries are the inverse of the secondary colors under the additive color model (where red + green makes yellow, red + blue makes magenta, etc.). This seeming contradiction has to do with the difference between mixing emitted light and reflecting/absorbing light.

Why Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow?

The choice of cyan, magenta, and yellow as the subtractive primaries has to do with their absorption of additive primaries and overlap to create secondary hues:

– Cyan pigment absorbs red and green light, reflecting blue back to our eyes.

– Magenta pigment absorbs green and blue light, reflecting back red.

– Yellow pigment absorbs blue and red light, reflecting green.

These reflective properties allow cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes or inks to be combined to reproduce a wide range of colors. For example, a cyan and yellow mix produces the appearance of green light by reflecting only the green wavelengths.

Alternative subtractive primaries have been proposed, like red, yellow, and blue. But these do not overlap as cleanly to produce secondary colors. Cyan, magenta, and yellow have been found to have the optimal absorption and reflection properties for combined color reproduction.

Subtractive Color Systems

Some key color systems that rely on subtractive colors include:

CYMK Printing:

Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks are used in color printing, with black added for density and contrast. Combining these inks/pigments in different ratios allows the reflection of a wide color gamut.

Traditional Painting:

Traditional painting also uses subtractive color mixing, starting with white pigment and adding cyan, magenta, and yellow paints to absorb wavelengths and create different hues.

RGB Displays:

Though they use emitted additive light, RGB displays have color filters with cyan, magenta, and yellow pigments to filter out wavelengths, creating red, green, and blue light.

Natural Pigments:

Many pigments found in nature like indigo, ochre, and cadmium have subtractive properties, absorbing some wavelengths and reflecting others.

Understanding primary subtractive colors allows us to engineer pigments, dyes, inks and filters to reproduce a wide color spectrum for art, photography, printing, and digital displays.

Subtractive vs Additive Color Models

Additive and subtractive color models seem inverted, but this difference stems from their contrasting methods of producing color:

– Starts with darkness, adds emitted red, green, and blue light.
– RGB computers, TVs.
– Primary colors are red, green, blue.
– Overlapping primaries makes white.

– Starts with white light, subtracts wavelengths through absorption.
– Paints, inks, dyes, pigments.
– Primary colors are cyan, magenta, yellow.
– Overlapping primaries makes black.

While complementary, bothProcesses rely on the primary colors’ wavelength properties. Additive starts in the dark and builds color by emission. Subtractive starts with white light and uses absorption to create color.

Key Properties of Subtractive Primaries

Some key properties of the subtractive primary colors:

  • There are 3 primary subtractive colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow
  • These primary colors reflect 2 of the 3 additive primaries (RGB) each
  • Overlapping subtractive colors absorbs more wavelengths, creating secondary colors and eventually black
  • Combining cyan, magenta, and yellow pigments creates black by absorbing all visible wavelengths
  • Subtractive color underlies painting, dyes, inks, and pigments
  • Complementary to additive color in displays by filtering wavelengths

Understanding these core properties allows us to see how subtractive color creates such a wide spectrum of hues in everything from printing to painting.

Everyday Examples of Subtractive Color

We can see the subtractive color model at work all around us:

  • Painting: Mixing blue and yellow paint absorbs red wavelengths, creating green paint.
  • Printing: Combining cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks can print full color images.
  • Tie-Dye: Using complementary dye colors like blue and orange absorbs wavelengths, letting others reflect.
  • Sunsets: Particles in the atmosphere subtract blues and greens at sunset, leaving vibrant yellows and reds.
  • Flower Petals: Pigments in petals selectively absorb some wavelengths, giving vibrant flower colors.
  • Colored Glass: Transition metal elements subtract wavelengths, creating the stained glass window effect.

Wherever colors are produced by pigments, dyes, or inks, subtractive color mixing is at work. Mastering use of the subtractive primaries allows for brilliant, saturated color.

Applications of Subtractive Color

Understanding subtractive color theory has enabled many key color technologies and applications:

Printing: Combining cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks at high resolutions allows accurate color printing.

Photography: Layering cyan, magenta, and yellow dye layers in film allows full color photos.

Paints: Mixing paint pigments allows virtually any hue to be created through selective wavelength absorption.

Dyes: Controlling dye chemistry creates vibrant subtractive colors for textiles, food, cosmetics, and more.

Displays: LCDs use cyan, magenta, and yellow color filters to create wide gamut of colors.

Digital Imaging: Software represents images using subtractive CMYK model before printing.

Pigments: Everything from oil paints to tattoos uses engineered pigments with optimized subtractive properties.

The Importance of Subtractive Primary Colors

In summary, understanding subtractive primary colors is key for:

  • Color theory – how colors are perceived based on absorption vs reflection.
  • Pigment engineering – creating better cyan, magenta, and yellow absorbing pigments.
  • Printing – combining inks for accurate color reproduction.
  • Displays – using filters to create wide color gamuts.
  • Painting – mixing paints by selectively absorbing wavelengths.
  • Photography – layering dye layers to capture color images.
  • Textiles – using dyes to color fabrics, cosmetics, and more.

Mastering subtractive color through controlled pigments and dyes led to revolution in printing, photography, displays, and art – letting us create, share, and capture color.


The subtractive primary colors of cyan, magenta, and yellow are key to color theory and practice. These colors reflect two of the additive primaries each, and in combination can absorb all visible light, creating black. Understanding the subtractive color model unlocked innovations in painting, dyeing, photography, and printing by giving control over pigments and reflected wavelengths. While complementary to the additive RGB model in displays, subtractive color underlies the physical pigments, inks, and dyes that bring vibrant color into our world.