Color Theory: The Difference Between Subtractive and Additive Colors

One of the keys to having a successful brand is consistency. Every company should have an official visual identity guide that defines the basics: proper use of logos, fonts, and colors. Even if you’re not a designer, you still need a primary grasp on what should be included.

Establishing color is a great place to start, but it won’t cut it to simply say “We use green”. In fact, just knowing your companies Pantone values are, ultimately, not enough, since those values are generally used for specific printing processes. What about spot colors, CMYK & 4 color process, RGB and Hexidecimal?

Don’t worry, it’s scarier than it sounds. Each of these categories has its own place within visual identity guidelines, but before you get into what they are and when it’s best to use them, you must go back to the root – color theory.

In grade school, we learned how to mix primary colors (yellow, blue, and red), that yellow + blue = green, blue + red = purple, red + yellow = orange – and if you mixed everything together, you get brown. Guess what? That was your first lesson in color theory. It’s just taken up a notch with print and digital mediums.

Subtractive colors

In print, we use cyan, magenta, and yellow (CMY), which are known as subtractive colors. Subtractive means that one begins with white and ends with black: as you add color, the result gets darker. So, what happens when this is put to use? If you print CMY inks on paper, they absorb the light –  your eye receives no reflected light from the paper and perceives black. CMYK and the 4 color process use a subtractive color process.

Additive colors

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is additive color. If you are working on a computer, the colors you see on the screen are created with light. These colors consist of Red, Green, and Blue (RGB). When those are combined, you get white. Essentially, this is the reverse of the subtractive process – as more color is added, the result is lighter and ends with white. RGB and Hexidecimal system use an additive process.

How can you apply this to your business?

Understanding the difference between subtractive and additive colors, and how each process works will help you determine what color process you would need to use for illuminated media like your website – you would want to work dark to light (the additive process). If you were printing a catalog, you would want to work light to dark (paper to ink; the subtractive process).

Knowing how each of these work and having visual identity guidelines that list your company’s Pantone, CMYK, RGB and Hexidecimal values will better ensure your brand stays consistent across all media – from your iPhone to that billboard on the highway.