Additive Color: Theory & Definition

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Color additive theory is important in the art, design, and digital industries because it teaches us about color perception and formation. In this lesson, we will learn the definition and scope of color additive theory.

color additive theory


Color additive theory is a fundamental component of color theory and must be understood by students and professionals in the art, digital, and design fields. In short, the theory examines how the most common colors, red, blue, and green are mixed together and perceived by the human eye. In this lesson, we will go over an in-depth definition of color additive theory to gain a solid understanding of its importance in those fields.

Color additive Theory Definition

Color additive theory is defined as how colors are made by mixing the primary colors red, green, and blue, and how those mixed colors perceived.

Wait a second, aren't the primary colors red, blue, and yellow? Yes, they are, but in color additive theory, the primary colors are red, blue, and green because those colors are found in the color photoreceptors of the human eye. The color additive theory, which is often credited to James Clerk Maxwell, is based off the Young-Helmholtz Theory of trichromatic vision. Around 1850, Maxwell proved the Young-Helmholtz Theory and the color additive theory was born.

Red, Green, and Blue Make White Light

White light is the combination of red, blue, and green wavelengths known as bands. When equal parts of red, blue, and green bands are added to one another, white light is created. That is the basis of additive color.

When all three additive colors are removed, black is perceived. On the other hand, when different primary additive colors are combined, brighter colors are created. Let's take a look at what happens when these primary colors are combined.

Adding the Primary Colors

The combination of any two additive primary colors together results in a new, brighter secondary color. The secondary colors are cyan, yellow, and magenta. The acronym 'CMY' refers to these secondary colors in the art and digital fields.

Here is how it works:

  • Cyan is produced when blue and green are combined.
  • Yellow is produced when red and green are combined.
  • Magenta is produced when blue and red are combined.

Since color operates on a continuum, new shades of these colors can be created when unequal amounts of each primary color are combined. Ultimately, the visible light spectrum can be created solely through the use of blue, red, and green.

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