What are Color Systems?

Christy Olsen

'Color Systems' or 'Color Models' are based on the physical process of mixing hues or colors. Color is produced in many ways, such as painting, digital images displayed on your computer monitor or phone, or printed photographs.

Color Systems

Color models include a 'subtractive color model' and an 'additive color model,' each specific to its medium or media. If you paint from your computer monitor in your studio or paint from an image printed from your printer, the color may appear more or less vibrant in comparison.

If you are trying to replicate the exact chroma, color intensity, hue, or value, you may want to lower your expectations. Your medium has physical limitations, and to further complicate matters, each color model or system has different primary colors.

Subtractive Color

Paint (including oil, pastels, or watercolors), pigments, and dyes are made from natural elements. They use the 'Subtractive Method' to make new colors. Why is it called 'Subtractive' if we combine pigments?

Yes, it's pretty confusing, but remember that white light contains all the colors from the rainbow (the visible spectrum of light), such as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet.

Subtractive Color Systems

When the photons from white light hit an object, they absorb all the various color wavelengths except the one reflected back to us. This color is 'subtracted' from the visible spectrum or white light source.

The primary colors of this traditional system are red, blue, and yellow (RYB). However, according to modern physics, they are not true primary colors and are ineffective in color image reproduction technology. Printers use the "Subtractive Color Method" with the modern primary color system.


The modern primary colors in the Subtractive Method were discovered in the 20th century when computer printer technology evolved. They are Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow.

Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y), & Black (K)

Printers use separate ink cartridges with Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, also known as CMYK. These colors are mixed in different percentages to achieve thousands of color variations.

They overlay each other in rows of tiny dots at slightly different angles to reproduce color. Image color varies from one printer to another, depending on the hardware and software.

Pantone Matching System

The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is a standardized proprietary system of thousands of numbered swatches called "spot" colors. It is used to manufacture fabric, plastics, and house paint and is also used in branding for color consistency.


This system, unlike CMYK, allows you to take a specific color with a brand and number to any hardware store and have it come out the same each time mixed.

Colors are not custom-mixed. You must choose a predetermined color from the set of color swatches.

The Pantone Color Institute declares a particular "Color of the Year" every year since 2000". These results are published in Pantone View. Fashion designers, florists, and many other consumer-oriented companies use this color to help guide their designs and planning for future products (Wikipedia, 2018).

Additive Color

Computer monitors and televisions use the 'Additive Method' to produce new colors from colored lights. They do not use pigments.

Colored Lights

This physical process occurs when colored lights are combined or 'added.' Mixing all primary colored lights or 'adding' them together produces white light. The primary colors in this system are Red, Green, and Blue (RGB).

Primary Colors

See the diagram below to recap the primary colors and their corresponding color systems.

Primary Colors & their Color Systems
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