How does colour affect our lives? Chapter three: subtractive & additive colour systems

Colour is an inescapable fact of life and affects everything we do. It can affect, in quite dramatic ways, our mood and our perception of the world we live in. The wheel system dates back to the early nineteenth century. Many different systems were created, each with a varying set of primaries. As I have said before, colour is a property of light, not an object itself. However, light and pigment are not mixed using the same method. In colour systems this must be recognised and used accordingly.


During this chapter, I will provide the facts that surround the photographic elements of colour. This may be during photography, printing, or visualising an image on a monitor. All these aspects must be considered towards working with colour successfully. Black and white photography overemphasise the darker and lighter aspects of the image. Lights appear lighter and darks appear darker. Unfortunately this can make the in-between greys almost fade out to nothing which cause problems of depth and character.

Colour photography works similarly with blues and reds being exaggerated to an extent that they are much stronger than in reality. As welcoming as this may be, because it can flatter dull lifeless photography, it can ‘result in a loss of finer nuances’ 08. Whites often appear to be of a greenish disposition that distorts the overall imagery. All these factors must be looked at during processing to compensate for the loss of quality. The primary colours in photography and light are different from those of printing methods.

Photographic Colours, also known as Subtractive and Process primary colours, consist of Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. If the three colours are projected one on top of each other then they will combine to produce white. If light is not present then this produces black. This is used in computer language and is referred to as CMYK. With the printed primary colours, if all three are printed over each other they will produce what is seen to be black.


The wheel system has been around since the early eighteenth century. Many systems have been created, each with a varying set of primary colours. Hue refers to the name of the colour; value refers to the lightness and darkness of a hue. Red and green produce yellow, green and blue produce cyan whilst blue and red produce magenta. These make up the two different colour wheels – Additive and Subtractive or RGB and CMY. The same colour mixtures work with CMY as with RGB.

Monitors for computer systems use RGB as a method of colour determination. The human eye can perceive many more colours than a computer monitor is able to show. This is an unfortunate problem, but RGB is able to show many more colours than CMY is able to produce, this is why the computer will use RGB. As CMYK, or process primary colours, can show very few colours, they may show a very different variation upon work being created on screen. Most Graphical User Interfaces (GUI’s) will have a system worked that will allow you to tell which colours can be used to print and which are just for screen, for example, web use.

The true process primary colours are Cyan, Magenta and Yellow, however these colours were not always available which is why Red, Green and Blue were used heavily to create colours before the modern printing methods were introduced. In the absence of Magenta and Cyan, Red and Blue can be used to mix colours, however the result can be unsatisfactory, as many colours cannot be mixed.


In more recent printing methods a new system has been worked through which created the Pantone colour system. These are numbered colours that can be chosen in either pigment, printing or monitor colours. They all refer to the same colour, however depending on the printer the colours may vary considerably, which is why printing Pantone colours is incredibly more expensive than using CMYK.

This chapter has allowed me to deal with the varying different primary colours depending on what process you will be using. It is very straightforward and shows a clear communication between the three major primary colours of Subtractive, Additive and Pigment. Pigment has not been concerned with this chapter, as it is never used as a recognised primary colour system during printing or photography. It shows that during day-to-day work methods the different colour systems must be looked at and considered depending on how the colours are being viewed.

If the colours are being viewed through a monitor then they will look different once they are printed professionally. If they are being viewed in a printing method then they will undoubtedly look different in a different situation.

End notes
08 / Page 15: Josef Albers, 2006. Interaction of Color: Revised and Expanded Edition. Rev Exp Edition. Yale University Press.

01 Introduction
02 Chapter one: theories of colour
03 Chapter two: colour in art
04 Chapter three: subtractive & additive colour systems
05 Chapter four: science in colour
06 Chapter five: colour therapy & alternative therapies
07 Conclusion


Having worked in design for the past decade, Daniel started as a discussion of timeless, modernist product design. Trained as a graphic designer, he also has an avid interest in typography. You can follow him on Twitter @ateliertally.

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