Demystifying Colour (vi) : Additive vs. subtractive

In the real world there are two ways to produce colours, and they are very relevant because they deal with opposite ends of the photographic spectrum – additive and subtractive. Additive colours are formed by combining coloured light, whereas subtractive colours are formed by combining coloured pigments.

Additive colours are so-called because colours are built by combining wavelengths of light. As more colours are added, the overall colour becomes whiter. Add green and blue together and what you get is a washed out cyan. RGB is an example of an additive colour model. mixing various amounts of red, green, and blue produces the secondary colours: yellow, cyan, and magenta. Additive colour models are the norm for most systems of photograph acquisition or viewing.

Additive colour
Subtractive colour

Subtractive colour works the other way, by removing light. When we look at a clementine, what we see is the orange light not absorbed by the clementine, i.e. all other wavelengths are absorbed, except for orange. Or rather the clementine is subtracting the other wavelengths from the visible light, meaning there is only orange left to reflect off. CMYK and RYB (Red-Yellow-Blue) are good examples of subtractive colour models. Subtractive models are for most systems for printed material.

Different colour inks absorb and reflect specific wavelengths. CMYK (0,0,0,0) looks like white (no ink is laid down, so no light is absorbed), whereas (0,0,0,100) looks like black (maximum black is laid down meaning all colours are absorbed). CMYK values range from 0-100%. Below are some examples.

Ink colourabsorbsreflectsappears
cyanredgreen, bluecyan
magentagreenred, bluemagenta
yellowbluegreen, redyellow
magenta + yellowblue, greenredred
cyan + yellowred, bluegreengreen
cyan + magentared, greenblueblue

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