Subtractive color

Subtractive color explains the theory of mixing paints, dyes, inks, and natural colorants to create colors which absorb some wavelengths of light and reflect others. The color that an object appears to have is based on what parts of the spectrum are reflected by it, or conversely by what parts of the spectrum are not absorbed.

Anything that is not additive color is subtractive color. No other color mixing systems are known, except the imperfect system resulting from mixing real pigments, something that is very confusing nowadays.

Color is not an absolute, but depends on the details of human color vision, which varies between individuals. Although color can be measured by instruments, such instruments are simply emulating a particular individual's vision.

Consider a "red" apple. When viewed under a white light, it appears red. But this doesn't mean that it emits red light, as would be the case in additive color. If it did, you would be able to see it in the dark. Rather, it absorbs some of the wavelengths that make up white light, reflecting only the wavelengths that humans see as red. Humans perceive the apple as red because of how their eye works, and how their brain interprets information from the eye.

Missing image

It takes three things to see color: a light source, a sample, and a detector (which can be an eye).

Missing image
Subtractive color mixing

In color printing, the primary inks used are cyan, magenta, and yellow. Cyan is the opposite of red, meaning that cyan acts like a filter that absorbs red. The amount of cyan applied to a paper will control how much red will show. Magenta is the opposite of green, and yellow the opposite of blue. With this knowledge an infinite number of color combinations are possible. This is how artwork reproductions are mass produced, though for various reasons a black ink is usually used as well (see limitations). This mixture of cyan, magenta, yellow and black is commonly called CMYK. CMYK is therefore an example of a subtractive color space, or rather a whole range of color spaces, since inks can vary, and the effect of the inks depends on the paper used.


The main reason that black ink (as in CMYK) is used in addition to cyan, magenta, and yellow, is that the latter inks usually cannot be combined to create a true black. No colored inks will absorb all wavelengths which might appear reddish, for example, meaning that all practical CMY mixtures, mixed at full intensity, will produce an off-black result. The colored inks are therefore printed first to produce the hue, while the black ink is used to produce the value.

See also


  1. Template:Book reference
  2. Template:Book reference
  3. Template:Book referencecs:Subtraktivní míchání barev

de:Subtraktive Farbsynthese fr:Synthčse soustractive it:Sintesi sottrattiva nl:Subtractieve kleurmenging sv:Subtraktiv färgblandning vi:Phối mŕu hấp thụ


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