Subtractive Color: Theory, Definition & System

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Understanding how we perceive color is an important part of being an artist. In this lesson, we'll explore the theory of subtractive color and see how this impacts the colors we see.

Subtractive Color

If you've spent any time in the world of art and design, you may have noticed that color is important. It's kinda what we do. We know how to mix colors, combine them, and use them; but to really understand color, we also need to know how we perceive them. Our eyes actually perceive color in different ways, based on how that color is produced.

Today, we're going to check out subtractive colors, those created by (ironically) adding paints or pigments together. So, why do we call this subtractive? To understand that, we're going to have to look beyond the aesthetics of color and look into how we see.

The colors we see in paintings are subtractive colors
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Physics of Color Theory

To understand subtractive color, we need to venture into a realm feared by many artists: physics. Natural white light contains waves of different frequencies or wavelengths. Certain things, like moisture or prisms, can separate out these frequencies from natural light into the individual colors of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet.

We often refer to these collectively by the mnemonic ROYGBIV. You may recognize that as the colors of a rainbow. Well, that's what a rainbow is: natural white light split into waves of different frequencies.

Light is composed of waves of different frequencies
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Now, your couch doesn't separate light into individual waves the way a prism or rainbow does. Why then does it have color? In physical objects, there are chemicals called pigments, which absorb certain frequencies of light while reflecting others.

The colors that are reflected are those that reach your eyes. So, if something looks blue, it's because that object contains pigments that absorb the red, orange, yellow, indigo, and violet frequencies from white light and reflect the blue ones.

Subtractive Color Theory

So, we've got waves of light that reflect off of various pigments to create what we perceive as color. Now, remember that a pigment prevents certain colors from reaching the eye. So, when we combine different pigments together, we are subtracting waves from the spectrum, and reducing what colors can reach the eye. That's why we call this subtractive color theory. As pigments are combined, more waves are subtracted. In this color theory, we start with white as the base color. White objects have no pigments that subtract light waves. As we add paints or dyes with specific pigments, we reduce the kinds of light waves that are reflected and the color gets darker. Eventually, we will block enough light waves that not enough are reflected to register as a color, and as a result the object appears black.

The most common example that artists use to explore subtractive colors requires three base colors of cyan, magenta, and yellow. If you have some watercolors handy, you can follow along with this experiment.

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