CMY Subtractive Colour Model

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This diagram introduces the CMY colour model. It shows the three primary colours (cyan, magenta and blue) with secondary colours between them.


The CMY colour model is a subtractive colour model that predicts the appearance of cyan, magenta and yellow inks when they are mixed together to produce other colours.

What you need to remember:

  • The CMY colour model is a method for mixing inks used by digital printers to produce other colours. It is called a subtractive colour model (a subtractive approach to colour).
  • The name of the CMY colour model comes from the initials of its three primary colours – cyan, magenta and yellow.
  • When pigments corresponding with the cyan, magenta and yellow primary colours are mixed together they combined to produce other colours.
  • Secondary colours are the colours produced when pairs of primary colours are combined in equal proportions. The CMY secondary colours are red, green and blue.
  • If inks corresponding with all three subtractive primary colours are mixed together in matching proportions the result is a dark brown or black.
  • If inks corresponding with all three subtractive primary colours are mixed in unequal proportions then many thousands (or possibly millions) of colours can be produced.
  • The CMY colour model does not define the precise colour of the red, green and blue primaries.
  • When the exact composition of primary colours is defined, the colour model then becomes an absolute colour space.

Description

CMY Subtractive Colour Model

TRY SOME QUICK QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS TO GET STARTED
The CMY (cyan, magenta and yellow) colour model is used for digital printers. K = black and refers to an additional ink cartridge used to print darker tones and shadows.
A subtractive colour model helps to make sense of what happens when different coloured pigments (eg. paints, inks, dyes or powders) are mixed together to produce other colours.
Yes! Cyan, magenta and yellow are the three primary colours in the CMY colour model. When mixed together they produce a dark brown or black because each colour subtracts from the wavelengths of light reflected towards an observer.
Yes! An observer can see both a rainbow and colours produced by paints at the same time.

About the diagram

About the diagram
What you need to remember:
  • A diagram of spectral colour is usually presented in the form of a continuous linear spectrum organised by wavelength, with red at one end and violet at the other.
  • The best known spectral colours are the colours of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet.
  • All spectral colours are produced by a single wavelength of light.
  • The fact that we see distinct bands of colour in a rainbow, rather than a continuum of colours, is an artefact of human colour vision.
  • Every spectral colour is produced by a single wavelength of visible light – the small part of the electromagnetic spectrum that our eyes are attuned to.
  • Spectral colours are produced as raindrops and other transparent media refract and disperse white light causing the different wavelengths to fan out into an array of colour.
  • All transparent media refract and disperse light without causing scattering.
  • Spectral colour is neither an additive nor subtractive colour model because each colour is produced by a single wavelength rather than by mixing different colours.
  • Sunlight produces the full range of spectral colours because at the point at which light is emitted by the sun and propagates through the vacuum of space, it contains all wavelengths of visible light.
  • Light containing all the wavelengths of the visible spectrum is called white light.
Spectral and RGB colours

Spectral colour should not be confused with RGB colour:

  • Spectral colours are components of the visible spectrum.
  • RGB colours are produced by mixing wavelengths of light corresponding with the three additive primary colours – red, green and blue.
  • A diagram of RGB colour is often represented in the form of a colour wheel and shows the colours produced by mixing adjacent colours on the wheel.
What is a colour model?

A colour model is a way of:

  • Making sense of the colours we see around us in the world.
  • Understanding the relationship of colours to one another.
  • Understanding how to mix each type of coloured media to produce predictable results.
  • Specifying colours using names, codes, notation, equations etc.
  • Organising and using colours for different purposes.
  • Using colours in predictable and repeatable ways.
  • Working out systems and rules for mixing and using different types of colour.
  • Creating colour palettes, gamuts and colour guides.
Why use colour models?
  • Colour models help to relate colours to:
  • Colour models make sense of the fact that coloured lights, transparent inks and opaque paints (etc.) all produce different results when mixed.
  • Colour models help us manage the fact that colours mean and feel different and have different associations depending on context.
  • Colours models help us manage the fact that colours behave and appear differently:
    • When emitted by different types of light source.
    • When applied to, mixed with, or projected onto different materials.
    • When used for different purposes (fabrics, electrical wiring and components, print media, movies etc.)
    • When seen or used in different situations (indoors, in sunlight, in low light, on a digital display etc.)
Additive and subtractive colour

There are two principal types of colour model, additive and subtractive. Additive colour models are used when mixing light to produce colour. Subtractive colour models are used for printing with inks and dyes. The most common colour models used by graphic designers on a day to day basis are the RGB model on their computer displays and the CMYK model for digital printing.

Remember that:
  • Seeing colour results from how our eyes process light waves.
  • In the real world, colours are changing all the time, appear differently in different situations and are infinitely variable.
  • So colour models help to make sense of a chaotic world.
What colour models do?

A colour model helps to do any of the following:

  • Decide what colours to mix to get the colour you want.
  • Know what happens when you mix two or more colours together.
  • Provide a name or code for a colour or a series of colours you want to use again.
  • Give you a list of colours produced by a rainbow or by a digital display.
  • Provide a system to mix a palette of colours from red, green and blue (RGB) or from cyan, magenta and yellow (CMY).
Spectral colour model

The spectral colour model (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet) is associated with rainbows and the refraction and dispersion of wavelengths of light into bands of colour.

RGB colour model

RGB (red, green, blue) is an additive colour model based on the trichromatic theory of colour vision. It is widely used in video cameras, for producing colour on digital screens and with software such as Adobe Creative Cloud.

CMY(K) colour model

CMY (cyan, magenta, yellow) is a subtractive colour model. It is the standard colour model for digital printing. Printers often include a fourth component, black ink (K), to increase the density of darker colours and blacks.

HSB colour model

HSB (hue, saturation, brightness) is a popular colour model because it is more intuitive and so easier to use when adjusting colour with digital software such as Adobe Creative Cloud.

HSB is one of a family that also includes HSV (hue, saturation, value) and HSI (hue, saturation, intensity).

Applications of colour models

Colour models have many applications including:

  • Understanding colour vision.
  • Mixing different coloured media eg. lights, paints, inks and dye.
  • Using colour with different equipment and technologies.
  • Storing and sharing colour information eg. notation systems and file types.
  • Describing and naming colours in a consistent way.
  • Nomenclature for describing similar things eg. systems for describing birds according to their colour.
  • Comparing colours eg. swatches and samples.
Colour models, colour spaces and colour systems
  • Colour models are device-dependent. This means that a colour specified as R=220, G=180, B=140 might appear differently on two digital monitors or when printed by different printers with the same specifications. In other words, the exact colour produced depends on the device that produces it not on the colour model itself.
  • A colour space describes the range of colours that an observer might see. Colour spaces can be very limited when a photo is printed on a low price digital printers, large when the same image is viewed on a high definition digital displays, or huge when the original scene is viewed in bright sunlight on a summer day.
  • A colour system considers all the factors that affect the observer, the colour model, how information is encoded before sending to the output device and the circumstances in which it is expected to be viewed.

Some key terms

  • A colour wheel is a circular diagram divided into segments, featuring primary colours, and used to visualize the result of colour mixing.
  • Colour wheels can enhance understanding of colour relationships and assist with the accurate selection and reproduction of colours.
  • A colour wheel starts with segments representing primary colours. Additional segments are added between them to explore the outcome of mixing adjacent primary colours.
  • By adding more segments between existing ones, further mixing of adjacent colours can be explored.
  • A colour wheel exploring the additive RGB colour model starts with red, green, and blue primary colours.
  • A colour wheel exploring the subtractive CMY colour model starts with cyan, magenta, and yellow primary colours.

secondary colour is a colour made by mixing two primary colours in a given colour space. The colour space may be produced by an additive colour model that involves mixing different wavelengths of light or by a subtractive colour model that involves mixing pigments or dyes.

  • The CMY colour model deals with a subtractive method of colour mixing. It can be used to explain and provide practical methods of combining three transparent inks and filters (cyan, magenta and yellow) to produce a wide range of other colours and particularly to produce realistic effects when printing digital images onto highly reflective white paper.
  • The primary colours in the CMY colour model are cyan, magenta and yellow.
  • The CMY colour model is a subtractive colour model used with transparent or translucent inks or filters.
  • The CMY colour model along with its system of notation enables an exact and reproducible approach to colour printing and other similar applications.
  • The CMY colour model is deeply embedded in all contemporary digital printer technologies and underpins industrial standards for the printing industry.
  • Find out more here https://lightcolourvision.org/dictionary/definition/cmy-colour-model/

Primary colours are a set of colours from which others can be produced by mixing (pigments, dyes etc.) or overlapping (coloured lights).

  • The human eye, and so human perception, is tuned to the visible spectrum and so to spectral colours between red and violet. It is the sensitivity of the eye to the electromagnetic spectrum that results in the perception of colour.
  • A set of primary colours is a set of pigmented media or coloured lights that can be combined in varying amounts to produce a wide range of colour.
  • This process of combining colours to produce other colours is used in applications intended to cause a human observer to experience a particular range of colours when represented by electronic displays and colour printing.
  • Additive and subtractive models have been developed that predict how wavelengths of visible light, pigments and media interact.
  • RGB colour is a technology used to reproduce colour in ways that match human perception.
  • The primary colours used in colour-spaces such as CIELAB, NCS, Adobe RGB (1998) and sRGB are the result of an extensive investigation of the relationship between visible light and human colour vision.

A subtractive colour model combines different hues of a colourant such as a pigment, paint, ink, dye or powder to produce other colours.

  • CMYK is a subtractive colour model.
  • CMYK pigments are the standard for colour printing because they have a larger gamut than RGB pigments.
  • CMYK printing typically uses white paper which has good reflective properties and then adds cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink or toner to produce colour.
  • Highlights are produced by reducing the amount of coloured ink and printing without black to allow the maximum amount of light to reflect off the paper through the ink.
  • Mid tones rely on the brilliance and transparency of the pigments and the reflectivity of the paper to produce fully saturated colours.
  • Shadows are produced by adding black to both saturated or desaturated hues.

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