Additive vs Subtractive Colors: Difference and Comparison

The reaction of external stimulation and photosensitive lumps of our eyes results in Color. These external simulations are in the form of light.

Colour mixing is a very important task to do while you are an artist, whether traditional or digital.

Knowing the basic types of mixing colours is vital to get the best shades chosen for art to look more effective. 

There are two basic methods of mixing colours: Additive Colors(optical mixing) and Subtractive colours (Basic colour mixing and stirring pigmentation mechanically).

If one wants to learn the management of colours, it is very important to have basic knowledge of colour mixing and reproduction.

Key Takeaways

  1. Additive colors are created by adding light of different wavelengths, while subtractive colors are produced by reflecting light off a surface.
  2. The primary colors of additive colors are red, blue, and green, while the primary colors of subtractive colors are cyan, magenta, and yellow.
  3. Additive colors are used for displays such as televisions and computer monitors, while subtractive colors are used for printing on paper and other materials.

Additive Colors vs Subtractive Colors

Additive colours are created by adding different coloured lights together. The primary colours of additive colour are red, green, and blue (RGB). Additive colour is used in electronic displays such as Computers. Subtractive colours are created by subtracting certain wavelengths of light from white light.

Additive Colors vs Subtractive Colors

Comparison Table

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

What are Additive Colors?

Additive colours are RGB or Red, Blue, and Green colours.

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They are used in the display screens that we work on daily. When these are combined, we get white, which is the whole concept behind additive colours.

The additive colours are opaque to the naked eye, and the entire system involved in this process is called the RGB process.

The RGB and hexadecimal systems use this process, which is quite effective in such situations. 

It can be seen that the entire process is just a reverse of the subtractive process, and many colour combinations are involved too.

A wide range of colours can be formed from the three colours.

additive colors

What are Subtractive Colors?

The subtractive synthesis is based on the absorption of waves of certain wavelengths.

The colour system used here is CMYK, and basic colours include Cyan, Yellow, and Magenta.

These colours are used in print compared to Additive colours used in the display.

Subtractive holds great importance when the user starts with the white colour; the darker the shade gets, the more he or she adds colour.

If the CMY ink is used on the paper, they absorb all the paper; hence, our eyes cannot receive any colour from the ink. This is the reason why the eyes perceive it as black colour.

Subtractive colours have many applications; the CMYK and 4 Color processes are the most used.

This is where the subtractive colours find most of their application. The Additive process is just a reverse of the Subtractive process.

subtractive colors

Main Differences Between Additive Colors and Subtractive Colors

  1. Additive colour mixing occurs when the lens or the eyes simultaneously act on different colour sensations. Subtractive colour mixing, on the other hand, does not mix colour sensations but creates these colours through subtraction. 
  2. The basic colours are synthesized when three light zones are combined optically, i.e., Red, Blue, and Green. Subtractive colours are formed by combining basic material colours: Yellow, Cyan, and Magenta.
  3. The colours that are used to combine in additive mixing are the colours that are produced by mixing in Subtractive and vice-versa.
  4. Additive colour follows the system RGB which displays primary colours with different light intensities. In contrast, Subtractive colour follows the filtering of primary colours from white light and uses the CMYK system.
  5. The three additive colour mixing are Green+Red=Yellow, Red+Blue=Magenta, and Blue+Green=Cyan. On the other hand, subtractive colour synthesis results in the formation of primary colours, that is Yellow+Magenta= Red, Yellow+Cyan=Green, and Cyan+Magenta= Blue.
  6. Additive colour prints are opaque to the eyes, which means one colour over the other does not let it be visible. In contrast, subtractive colour prints are transparent to the eyes, which implies that the colour above the other colour does not let it vanish.
Difference Between Additive Colors and Subtractive Colors


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Last Updated : 11 June, 2023

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24 thoughts on “Additive vs Subtractive Colors: Difference and Comparison”

  1. Well presented article, easy to follow and understand. A great resource for beginners and experienced artists alike.


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