Color is a powerful element of design, and when used well it can have a significant impact on your marketing and branding. But in order to use color effectively, you need to understand how to use it, and this is where color theory comes in. Color theory is both the science and the art of using color, and it explains the visual effects of how colors interact with each other. 

Light travels in different wavelengths, which our eyes and brains receive and translate into the phenomenon of color. There are two models for color mixing: additive and subtractive. In the additive model, we create colors by mixing red, green, and blue light sources of various intensity. The more light you add, the brighter the mix becomes. By this model, if you mix all three colors of light you get pure, white light. Additive color mixing is sometimes referred to as RGB for the three wavelengths of light that its primary colors: Red, Green, and Blue. This model is used by televisions, screens, and projectors. 

Subtractive color mixing is the inverse of the additive model. When you see a physical surface, be it signage, packaging, paper, etc, you’re seeing this model at work. It’s called “subtractive” because you subtract light from the surface by adding more color.  Traditionally, painters used the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue to mix the full spectrum of colors, but as printing technology emerged they were replaced with cyan, magenta, yellow and key/black (CMYK). CMYK allows printers to produce a wider variety of cleaner (read: not muddled) colors on paper. 

As a graphic designer, it’s important to understand the differences between these two color mixing models. If you are ever going to produce work in print, you need to remember to toggle between the color modes on your computer so that the colors will be accurate in the final product. Printing uses the subtractive color mixing method, so getting accurate color reproduction can only be achieved by using CMYK. 

Join me next time for the second part of this series, which will cover color theory in more depth. With this basic understanding of color under your belt, I’ll be covering the color wheel (a very handy tool) and some key terms in color mixing.

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