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The CMY Color System - Subtractive Color

Related Pages:  
NameRedGreenBlue
Black000
Red25500
Green02550
Blue00255
Yellow2552550
Magenta2550255
Cyan0255255
White255255255

While RGB and HSV are ways of working with color in an "additive" way, the CMY Color System manipulates color in a "subtractive" way. CMY still defined with reference to the RGB Color System, and can be thought of its "inverse". Like RGB, CMY is based on three primary colors - Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. In fact, Cyan, Magenta and Yellow are the "complementary" colors or Red, Green and Blue respectively. What does "complementary" mean? The answer to this question ultimately also explains why CMK is a "subtractive" system while RGB is an "additive" system. Take a look at the table of simple colors to the right.

The table is made up of Black and White, the three RGB primaries and the three CMY primaries. Black is a complete absence of color. White is formed by all three components at full intensity. Red, Green and Blue are formed by a single component only at full intensity. Cyan, Magenta and Yellow are formed by two components at full intensity, and lack the third. Cyan lacks Red. Now, if we had Cyan and we wanted to create White light, we would need to add Red. For situation is the same for Magenta which lacks Green, and Yellow which lacks Blue. This implies that is that if we had White we can form one of the RGB or CMY primaries by removing or "subtracting" its complement.

WhitesubstractCyanleavesRed
WhitesubstractMagentaleavesGreen
WhitesubstractYellowleavesBlue

While RGB is used in devices that emit light, CMY is used in devices that absorb (subtract) some wavelengths of light and reflect or tramsmit others. A printer creates a reflective effect on paper using inks defined using the CMYK System ( CMY with the addition of extra black to achieve a darker effect on the paper medium). When white light strikes the paper Cyan ink will absorb the Red wavelengths so they are not reflected. A yellow filter in a lighting show will absorb (subtract) the blue wavelengths.

That concludes this simple overview of some fundamental concepts in color science. If you found these pages useful, please check back soon - we are planning to improve and expand this material. You may be interested in attending our Introduction to Digital Color Management Course. Or you may find these links to other java applets demonstrating color science useful.

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