Additive and Subtractive Colour Theory

When it comes to understanding Additive and Subtractive colour – the theory is a fundamental concept in the world of art and design. It helps us understand how colours work together and how they can be manipulated to create visually appealing compositions. Two primary colour theories, additive and subtractive, form the foundation of colour understanding. In this article, we will delve into the basics of these colour theories, exploring their key concepts and applications.


Additive colour theory refers to the mixing of coloured light to create new colours. It is commonly used in electronic displays, such as televisions, computer monitors, and projectors. The primary colours in additive colour theory are red, green, and blue, commonly referred to as RGB.

  • Red: Red light stimulates the receptors in our eyes, creating the sensation of red colour. In additive colour theory, red is considered one of the primary colours.
  • Green: Green light activates the green receptors in our eyes and is another primary colour in additive colour theory.
  • Blue: Blue light stimulates the blue receptors in our eyes and completes the primary colours of additive colour theory.

When combined at full intensity, the primary colours of additive theory create white light. By adjusting the intensity of each primary colour, different shades and hues can be achieved. Mixing red and green light, for example, produces yellow light. Adding blue light to the mix creates white light.

Additive colour theory is based on the principle that the more light you add, the brighter and lighter the resulting colour becomes. This is why combining all three primary colours at full intensity yields white light.

Applications of Additive Colour Theory

Additive colour theory has practical applications in various fields, including:

  • Digital Displays: The RGB colour model is widely used in digital displays, allowing screens to produce a wide range of colours by controlling the intensity of each pixel.
  • Stage Lighting: Additive colour mixing is commonly used in theater and concert lighting setups, where different-coloured lights are combined to create a desired ambiance or effect.
  • Graphic Design and Digital Art: Understanding additive colour theory is crucial for artists and designers working on digital platforms, as it helps them create vibrant and visually appealing compositions.


Subtractive colour theory, on the other hand, pertains to the mixing of pigments or dyes to create colours. It is commonly used in traditional painting, printing, and colour mixing with physical materials. The primary colours in subtractive colour theory are cyan, magenta, and yellow, often abbreviated as CMY.

  • Cyan: Cyan pigment absorbs red light, reflecting green and blue light, giving it a bluish-green appearance.
  • Magenta: Magenta pigment absorbs green light, reflecting red and blue light, creating a purplish pink colour.
  • Yellow: Yellow pigment absorbs blue light, reflecting red and green light, resulting in a yellow colour.

Combining all three primary subtractive colours- cyan, magenta, and yellow- in equal amounts results in a neutral gray or black. The more pigments are mixed, the darker and less vibrant the resulting colour becomes. For instance, mixing cyan and yellow pigments produces green, while combining magenta and yellow pigments creates orange. Adding black (K) to the CMY mix allows for the perfect spectrum of color as it can create the rich, deep, and dark tones a designer might desire. ‘K’ stands for Key, Key Color, or Key Plate – making up the well known CMYK.

Applications of Subtractive Colour Theory

Subtractive colour theory finds practical applications in various fields, including:

  • Printing: Subtractive colour mixing is the basis of CMYK printing, where cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks are combined to create a wide range of colours.
  • Traditional Painting: Artists use subtractive colour mixing to achieve various hues and shades on their canvas by blending different pigments.
  • Colour Mixing: Understanding subtractive colour theory helps in achieving desired colours when mixing paints, dyes, or other physical pigments.

In summary:- Additive and subtractive colour theories are fundamental concepts in understanding how colours interact and are used in different applications. Additive colour theory focuses on the mixing of coloured light (RGB) and is commonly used in digital displays, while subtractive colour theory deals with the mixing of pigments (CMY) and is used in printing and traditional painting. By grasping the basics of these colour theories, artists, designers, and anyone working with colours can better understand how to create harmonious and visually captivating compositions.

At Universal Paints , we understand colour and can mix and match any colour you desire –

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