Difference Between Additive Colors and Subtractive Colors (With Table)

The reaction of external stimulation and photosensitive lumps of our eyes results in the Color. These external simulations are in the form of light. Color mixing is a very important task to do while you are an artist, be it traditional or digital. It is very vital to know the basic types of mixing colors to get the best shades chosen for art to look more effective. 

There are basically two basic methods of mixing colors: Additive Colors(optical mixing) and Subtractive colors(Basic colors mixing and stirring pigmentation mechanically). If one wants to learn the management of colors, it is very important to have basic knowledge of color mixing and reproduction.

The difference between Additive Colors and Subtractive Colors is that additive colors are pure and involve optical mixing of light whereas subtractive colors are impure which means the mechanical mixing of basic colors. 

Comparison Table Between Additive Colors and Subtractive Colors

Parameter of ComparisonAdditive ColorsSubtractive Colors
DefinitionAdditives occur when various color irritants constantly and simultaneously act on the lenses or the eyes.Creation of colors by mixing colors via subtraction.
Basic ColorsRed, green, and blueCyan, Yellow, and Magenta
System involvedRGBCMYK
TransparencyOpaque colors to the eyeTransparent colors to the eye

What are Additive Colors?

Additive colors are RGB or Red, Blue, and Green colors. They are used in the display screens that we work on a daily basis. When these are combined, the color we get is white and this is the whole concept behind additive colors.

The additive colors are opaque to the naked eyes and the entire system that is involved in this process is called the RGB process. The RGB and hexadecimal system make use of this process and it is quite effective in such situations. 

It can be seen that the entire process is just a reverse of the subtractive process and there are many color combinations involved too. There is a wide range of colors that can be formed from the three colors.

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What are Subtractive Colors?

The subtractive synthesis is based on the concept of absorption of waves of certain wavelengths. The color system used here is CMYK and basic colors include Cyan, Yellow, and Magenta colors. These colors are used in print as compared to Additive colors which are used in the display.

Subtractive holds great importance as when the user starts with the white color, the more he or she adds color, the darker the shade gets. If the CMY ink is used on the paper, they absorb all the paper, and hence, our eyes are unable to receive any color from the ink. This is the reason why the eyes perceive it as black color.

Subtractive colors have much application and the most used ones are the CMYK process and the 4 Color Process. This is where the subtractive colors find most of their application. In general, the Additive process is just a reverse of the Subtractive process.

Main Differences Between Additive Colors and Subtractive Colors

  1. Additive color mixing when there is a simultaneous action of the lens or the eyes on different color sensations. Subtractive color mixing, on the other hand, does not mix color sensations but creates these colors through subtraction. 
  2. The basic colors are synthesized when three zones of light are simultaneously combined optically, i.e., Red, Blue, and Green. Subtractive colors are formed by combining basic material colors which are Yellow, Cyan, and Magenta.
  3. The colors that are used to combine in additive mixing is the colors that are produced by mixing in Subtractive and vice-versa.
  4. Additive color follows the system RGB that is the display of primary colors with different light intensity whereas Subtractive color follows the filtering of primary colors from white light and uses the CMYK system.
  5. The three additive color mixing are Green+Red=Yellow, Red+Blue=Magenta, and Blue+Green=Cyan. On the other hand, subtractive color synthesis results in the formation of primary colors that is, Yellow+Magenta= Red, Yellow+Cyan=Green, and Cyan+Magenta= Blue.
  6. Additive color prints are opaque to the eyes that mean one color over the other does not let it be visible whereas subtractive color prints are transparent to the eyes which implies that the color above the other color does not let it vanish.
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It is very important to have basic knowledge about how color mixing and system works and the various types of techniques involved. The two of the main are Additive and subtractive colors and they are highly crucial for the artists and designers in every field. There are many differences between the two. 

Additive colors are called pure as they mix primary colors from the white light through the lens or eyes. However, subtractive colors filter out this, and the mixing results in the formation of primary colors. The additive colors used the RGB system whereas subtractive colors use the CMYK system. 

Additive colors are opaque in nature which means that the upper layer of color hides the lower layer’s visibility which is not the case of subtractive color synthesis which is transparent to the eyes. The additive color uses Red, Blue, and green as its basic colors whereas subtractive ones use Yellow, Cyan, and magenta as its basic colors. In the end, what we learn is the proper mixing of the colors and their importance in the field of arts and designs.


  1. https://aapt.scitation.org/doi/abs/10.1119/1.4944370
  2. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&profile=ehost&scope=site&authtype=crawler&jrnl=14479494&AN=73027881&h=NNFrFe60eawSM6Rpr7QFrHJBIpsOJzuVOse1hCp%2FiWxKaJsZXKWU9QodXhuFYCoUx4ElQ9IxuEOsCGvrFbRPWQ%3D%3D&crl=c