RGB Additive Colour Model


This diagram introduces the RGB colour model. It shows the three primary colours (red, green and blue) with secondary colours between them.

What you need to remember:

  • Mixing different wavelengths of light to produce other colours, is called an additive colour model or an additive approach to colour.
  • Red, green and blue (RGB) are additive primary colours. This means that when these wavelengths of light are projected onto a dark surface they combined to produce other colours. The colour produced depends on the intensity of each light source.
  • If wavelengths of light corresponding with all three additive primary colours are projected in equal amounts onto a dark surface the result is white.
  • If wavelengths of light corresponding with all three additive primary colours are projected in unequal amounts onto a dark surface many thousands (or millions) of colours can be produced.
  • Secondary colours are the colours produced when pairs of primary colours are combined in equal proportions.


RGB Additive Colour Model

When wavelengths corresponding with red, green and blue are projected onto a neutral coloured surface they produce white.
In the RGB colour model green and blue are the two primary colours that together make cyan!
Yes! The primary colours red, green and blue are used to produce secondary colours when using the RGB and HSB colour models.
Cyan, magenta and yellow are the three secondary colours when building an RGB colour wheel.

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:
    • One another
    • Light sources, objects and materials
    • Experience and perception.
  • 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

The trichromatic colour model is a theory of colour that establishes terms, rules and methods to enable human colour vision to be dealt with in both systematic and practical ways.

  • To be clear about the RGB colour model it is useful to remember first that:
    • The visible spectrum is the range of wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that correspond with all the different colours we see in the world.
    • A spectral colour is a colour corresponding with a single wavelength of visible light, or with a narrow band of adjacent wavelengths.
    • The human eye, and so human perception, is tuned to the visible spectrum and so to spectral colours between red and violet. However, because of the way the eye works, we can see many other colours which are produced by mixing colours from different areas of the spectrum. A particularly useful range of colours is produced by mixing red, green and blue light.
    • RGB colour is an entirely different approach to producing and managing colour.
  • RGB colour is an additive colour model in which red, green and blue light is combined in various proportions to reproduce a wide range of other colours. The name of the model comes from the initials of the three additive primary colours, red, green, and blue.
  • Except for the three primary colours, RGB colours are not spectral colours because they are produced by combining colours from different areas of the visible spectrum.
  • RGB colour provides the basis for a wide range of technologies used to reproduce digital colour.
  • RGB colour provides the basis for reproducing colour in ways that are well aligned with human perception.
  • When an observer has separate controls allowing them to adjust the intensity of overlapping red, green and blue coloured lights they are able to create a match for a very extensive range of colours.
  • When looking at any modern display device such as a computer screen, mobile phone or projector we are looking at RGB colour.
  • Magenta is an RGB colour for which there is no equivalent spectral colour.

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.

Additive colour mixing combines wavelengths of light to produce the vast array of hues an observer sees on TV, computer and phone screens.

Colour models that use an additive approach to colour include:

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