Color Space: Definition & Conversion

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Look around. There's color everywhere. But how does it get to your computer screen or the pages of a comic book? By using a color space. In this lesson, you'll learn about color space, what it is and how to convert from one to another.

What is Color Space?

You're probably reading this lesson on a computer screen. Do you see colors in images and diagrams? Ever notice the colors in games like Angry Birds? How about a bright fashion magazine? Those colors are determined on your screen and in print through the use of a color space.

Color space means the use of a specific color model or system that turns colors into numbers. Yes, it's math. Each color model is a method of creating many colors from a small group of primary colors. Each model has a range of colors it can produce. That range is the color space. But here's an important fact: color spaces in different systems aren't exactly the same.

Think of media formats that use color - printing in books and magazines; digital media like websites and video games. When an artist or designer creates with a color in mind, they want it to be accurately reproduced in whatever format a person is reading, seeing or viewing. That's why color space is important. Now let's look two common examples.

Different Types of Color Spaces

When choosing which color space to use, here's a basic question: are you working in digital or print format? Digital devices use a color space called RGB for Red/Green/Blue. It's based on colored light. The three colors of light combine in different ways to produce color. It's an additive process and a look at the diagram explains why.

Diagram, RGB Color Model. Full brightness of all colors is represented by white in middle

If none of the lights are bright, the eye perceives black. If all lights are at their brightest, as in the middle of the diagram, the eye sees white. All other colors are made through specific percentages of the three basic colors. RGB includes a larger part of the visible spectrum that other color models and it most resembles how we see color.

Now think a picture printed on paper. Ink is needed because the color is produced through a physical process. This color space is called CMYK, for Cyan/Magenta/Yellow/Black. Sometimes you'll see CMYK called process color because it's used in the four-color printing process.

Diagram, CMYK Color Model. Full saturation of all inks plus black is represented by black in middle.

The easiest way to understand this is to start with the white paper on which an image will be printed. The four inks are printed in layers on the white background until the darkest tones are complete. The ink masks, or conceals, the brightness of the white background. Because you take away brightness as the color is applied, CMYK is a subtractive color system. Black ink is included because when the cyan, magenta and yellow are combined, they don't create true black.

Four-part color separation for a printed image. Finished image at top.

Other Color Spaces

RGB and CMYK are the most common systems but there are others. They include HSB (Hue, Saturation and Brightness), a model where three numbers represent each color. The first number, for hue, has a scale of 0 to 360 and includes all colors. The second number is for saturation. It runs from 0 to 100, with 0 equaling no color and 100 being full color. Brightness also runs from 0 to 100, with the higher number representing darker color. By using specific combinations of numbers, you get different colors.

Then there are commercial color spaces. Pantone, a company and a color management system, is an example. The Pantone system was created in 1963 for graphic designers to ensure color accuracy every time a color was used in different images and across platforms. Today, the Pantone Color Matching System expands on CMYK for four-color process printing and can designate specific pigments. Designers creating a document list Pantone numbers and know the finished document will include the colors they specified.

Example of Pantone color system. Designers and printers buy these arrays with numbers attached to colors. The system assures color accuracy.

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