Subtractive and Additive Color – Different Systems for How We See Color

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There are two systems which determine how we see color - subtractive and additive color. As an artist, it is essential that you understand these two color systems so that you can make informed decisions about the colors you use.

Subtractive Color

Subtractive color is how we see color in paints. It is the result of light either bouncing off or being absorbed by an object due to what is known as pigmentation. The light which bounces off the object is translated by our eyes and brain into the perception of color.

This means that objects do not have an inherent color. The color of an object is the result of light and pigmentation.

For example, an apple is not red because it is inherently red. It is red because it is reflecting red light wavelengths and absorbing the rest.

Paul Cézanne, Four Apples, 1881
Paul Cézanne, Four Apples, 1881
Paul Cézanne, Four Apples, 1881 - Light

In art, the subtractive primary colors are red, blue and yellow. Primary colors are colors which, in theory, are able to mix all other colors in the visible spectrum. Below is a color wheel which uses red, blue and yellow primary colors.

Color Wheel - Red, Blue and Yellow Primary Colors

Primary Colors: Red, blue and yellow
Secondary Colors: Orange, green and violet

Additive color

Sir Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton

Additive color refers to how we see color in light itself. Our modern understanding of light and color begins with the experiments conducted by Sir Isaac Newton, who used a prism to split white light into the visible spectrum of colors. The key discovery here was the light is not merely revealing color which is already there; it is the color.

The primary colors of light are different from the primary subtractive colors of our paints. Below is an additive color wheel which illustrates what happens when you mix colored lights together.

Additive Color Wheel

Primary Colors of Light: Red, green and blue
Secondary Colors of Light: Cyan, magenta and yellow

If you mix green with red light, you get yellow light. If you mix blue with green light, you get cyan light. If you mix blue with red light, you get magenta light.

When you mix (add) all the colors of light together, you get white light. This is why it is referred to as additive color. With subtractive color, you see color because some wavelengths are being reflected and others are being absorbed (subtracted). When you mix all the subtractive colors together, you do not get white light; you get mud.

The Dilemma

In painting, you will be painting both subtractive colors (reflected light) and additive colors (actual light sources).

For example, picture a traditional landscape. The colors of the trees, grass, rocks, land - these are subtractive colors (light is bouncing off these objects). The sky and sun - these are additive colors (light sources).

The dilemma is that you are not able to use your paints (subtractive colors) to duplicate the effect of additive colors (a light source). This is a limitation of our paints. This is why your sunset painting just does not seem to have the same impact as the real thing.

Instead of painting with light, we are only able to paint the illusion of light. So instead of trying to paint the actual intensity and brightness of the sunset in your painting (which would be impossible), you should try and paint the relative brightness and temperature of the sunset to the rest of your scene. This may involve toning down the rest of the painting to show-off the sunset.

Dan Scott, Before the Sun Goes Down, Fraser Island, 2017
Dan Scott, Before the Sun Goes Down, Fraser Island, 2017

A Note About Cyan, Magenta And Yellow

In painting, most artists consider red, blue and yellow as the primary colors. But some artists are adopting cyan, magenta and yellow as the primary colors, as they are thought to produce a more complete range of colors. These colors plus black are actually used in colored printing. Below is a color wheel using cyan, magenta and yellow as the primary colors.

Subtractive Color Wheel

Primary Colors: Cyan, magenta and yellow
Secondary Colors: Red, blue and green

For simplicity and to remain consistent with other artists, I use red, blue and yellow as the primary colors.

What Do Subtractive And Additive Colors Have In Common?

An interesting thing about subtractive and additive colors is that they both require light. With subtractive colors, light wavelengths are either reflecting off objects or being absorbed via pigmentation. Additive color is created by light itself.

So without light, color would not exist. It is light that allows us to experience the sensation of color. In a sense, light does not reveal color, it produces color.

Vincent van Gogh, The Sower and the Sunset, 1888
Vincent van Gogh, The Sower and the Sunset, 1888

(You might also be interested in my Painting Academy course. It will help you understand and use color more effectively in painting.)

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

53 thoughts on “Subtractive and Additive Color – Different Systems for How We See Color”

  1. Thank you. Dan, this article is an excellent refresher of an art class I attended in college. It is amazing what we forget. I appreciate the reminder. Well done.

    Reply
  2. Now this is a brain exercise. Very interesting, but I can’t quite conceive the practical application of this new information. Anyone? Thanks so much for sharing this. I will be investigating further.

    Reply
    • Hi Lori and Kelly,
      Perhaps I can help both of you understand the application of the concepts of both additive and subtractive light that Don is presenting to you. These concepts are extremely important in developing both your visual and mind acuity as an artist.

      Artists must first learn to clearly see shape, form, value, tone, color, etc prior to picking up the brush to mix pigmented paint. Seeing is a very personal experience as each of us grow from childhood to adulthood. Additionally, specifically, our seeing color is dictated by the physical condition of our eyes. Color blinded people perceive color differently than most of us.

      To understand what we, as artists, are looking at, we should first understand the science behind additive and subtractive light. By understanding that subtractive light really means, (as Dan said), that we perceive the hue that is subtracted (or left-over), from all the other spectrum hues that are absorbed into the surface of that which we are looking at. ”That” subtracted/left-over perceived hue is the local color of “that” something…I.e., the RED ball or BLUE easy chair. It is that perceived color which bounces back to our eye. Then we associate that hue which we just saw with the name of the color that we learned since childhood.

      To develop our acute sense of observation and understanding of the physical world, as an artist, we need to understand that additive light by its sheer brightness or dimness dictates how intense that red ball actually is perceived. If the light is dimming at sunset or a sole light bulb in a large room makes that red ball less intense and low in value then we as artists need to understand which hues to mix to created our desired shade of red, either warm or cool.

      Understanding how these two theoretical concepts work hand in hand we will be able to create a desired mood to convey our visual message to our viewers. This is not a how to paint something by doing step one, then step two, these color theory concepts allow us a broader, clearer and more thoughtful way of seeing and artistically conveying/interpreting what we see. This is a foundational knowledge tool.

      Alas, we now have the reason for understanding subtractive and additive color so we can properly dictate the intensity and value of that desired perceived hue. Understanding these scientific concepts only make us better artists or interpreters of our message.

      As a retired educator of higher education, I can professionally say students have concluded my introductory painting classes, and have said that they wondered what they were seeing before this class. Now the world now seems clear, vivid and rich with color. When they are looking at a summer landscape they see a plethora of greens that they never saw before. They remark that their lives are richer now because they have learned to “see”.

      Which is precisely why Dan Scott wrote this article about Additive and Subtractive color. So you can “see” as an artist.

      Enjoy and start looking! ?

      My best, Dorine, MFA

      Reply
      • Thanks you Dorine for this additional learning session. Oh I wish I’ve had the opportunity to attend your classic. ?

        Reply
  3. Thank you so much. Very interesting. As a self taught artist I did not kow any of this. I use cyan and magenta a lot in my silk paintings and am now incorporating them into use in my oil works. I’ve loved the way they work on silk, but with other pigments, acrylic and oil, havent gotten the same results I wanted. So I think I’ll try and tone down other surrounding colors and maybe they’ll come out more brillant.
    Love your posts, again thank you

    Reply
  4. Very informative, however, I am confused about what you meant when you said some artists are using the additive color wheel. How do you apply this concept differently than subtractive, which seems more intuitive?

    Reply
  5. That awoke some knowledge Ihad from the printing and graphic arts industry, in pre press. I knew this but it had lapsed into memory. Thanks for stimulating my little grey cells about this again. ??

    Reply
  6. Very interesting. I hope it helps me. I am a 6 month old painter. I am painting a copy (more or less) of John Sargent’s Simplon.Pass, 1911 in your Rocks and cliffs article. I hope it helps me as I’m having real trouble creating some of the hues, colors in the ………. throughout. Mostly the blues toward violet with green hues. I am plesently chalanged.

    Reply
  7. 🙋🏻‍♀️ Hello,
    Another self-taught (watercolour) artist on the feed. Thank you for that wonderful piece, (I’m a sucker for any information re: Colour Theory.)
    But, of course, I too have a question. Having done a number of colour wheels, including a Split-Primary Colour Wheel, (for the emerging artist &/or the self-taught artist, doing your own colour wheels are vital in your colour theory education, however I cannot stress enough the importance of doing a Split-Theory CW. This will aid in understanding how mixing cool/warm; cool/cool, etc., colours affects the hues.)
    With (all) this said, is it as vital to do an Additive Colour Wheel?
    Thank you for your time.

    Reply

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