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What is the difference between additive and subtractive color models?

What is the difference between additive and subtractive color models?

Color is a critical aspect of visual design and there are two primary ways that colors are created – through additive color models like RGB (red, green, blue) and through subtractive color models like CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black). Understanding the differences between these two color models is important for anyone working in visual design or print production.

Additive Color Models

Additive color models like RGB create color by combining light of different wavelengths. In an additive model, the primary colors are red, green and blue. When you combine red, green and blue light together, you get white light. Computer and TV screens use the RGB color model to create the colors we see by mixing different amounts of red, green and blue light.

In additive color models, combining more color results in lighter and brighter colors. Starting with black (no color), adding red, green and blue gets you to white. In graphics programs like Photoshop you can mix RGB colors by adjusting sliders for the red, green and blue channels.

Subtractive Color Models

Subtractive color models like CMYK create color by absorbing certain wavelengths of light and reflecting others. The primary colors in CMYK are cyan (reflects green and blue), magenta (reflects red and blue) and yellow (reflects red and green). When you combine cyan, magenta and yellow pigments together, you get black. Printed materials use CMYK inks to create colors by layering different combinations of the inks on paper.

In subtractive color, combining more color results in darker colors. Starting with white (all light reflected), adding cyan, magenta and yellow pigment gets you to black by absorbing more wavelengths of light. In print design programs like InDesign you can mix CMYK colors by adjusting sliders for each ink channel.

Key Differences

Additive (RGB) Subtractive (CMYK)
Creates color by combining light Creates color by absorbing certain wavelengths of light
Primary colors are red, green, blue Primary colors are cyan, magenta, yellow
Combining colors results in lighter/brighter colors Combining colors results in darker colors
Used for screens and digital media Used for printed materials
RGB sliders mix channels by adding more color CMYK sliders mix channels by adding more ink

The key difference between additive and subtractive color models comes down to light versus pigment. Additive RGB colors are created by combining light waves while subtractive CMYK colors are created by layering pigments that absorb certain light wavelengths.

This results in opposite color mixing logic – RGB gets brighter by adding more color, CMYK gets darker by adding more ink. Understanding these core differences allows designers to select the right color model for their output medium and get the results they expect.

When to Use Each Color Model

The additive RGB color model is best for:

– Digital screens like phones, computers, TVs
– Projection and LED lighting
– Digital images and graphics
– Video and film production

The subtractive CMYK color model is best for:

– Printed materials and publications
– Inkjet and laser printers
– Off-set printing presses
– Textiles, decor and packaging
– Paint mixing and pigment creation

Converting Between Color Models

While RGB and CMYK have key differences, you may need to convert colors between the two color models for projects involving both print and digital media. Here are some tips for converting colors:

– Converting RGB to CMYK will often make colors darker since you are going from light to pigment. Some bright RGB colors may not have exact CMYK equivalents.

– When converting CMYK to RGB, you may need to adjust hue and saturation to match the original color since you are going from a limited ink palette to a wider gamut of light.

– For the best color accuracy, rely on color profiles and conversion settings in programs like Photoshop or InDesign instead of just changing color mode.

– Do test prints to see how CMYK colors will look physically when printed instead of relying only on how they look on screen. The printed product is the final proof of color accuracy.

The CMY Color Model

There is also a third subtractive color model worth mentioning – the CMY color model. CMY refers to cyan, magenta and yellow without black (K). While less common than CMYK, CMY can be used for ink mixing or dyeing when true black is not needed. Without black, the CMY model has a smaller color gamut best suited for brighter colors. CMY is essentially a simplified version of CMYK without the black channel.


Understanding additive and subtractive color models is an important foundation for anyone working in visual design, photography, print production or other fields requiring color mastery. While additive RGB and subtractive CMYK are the most widely used color models, being familiar with their differences allows you to plan projects with the right color logic in mind from the start. When leveraged properly for their intended output, both additive and subtractive color models give creatives the power to bring vibrant color to life.