Color Model Basics: Demystifying Color Models

Color Model Basics: Demystifying Color Models




Demystifying Color Models

A color model is an abstract mathematical model describing the way colors can be represented as -numbers, typically as three or four values or color components.

Wikipedia (color models)

Abstract mathematical models?!  Don’t worry, we’re not going to go all “A Beautiful Mind” here, with a bunch of numbers & formulas. In this post, we’ll just be taking a look at the basic principles & characteristics of the most popular color models.

What is a Color Model?

A color model is really just a set of rules that help make it possible to measure or describe the various attributes of a particular color. One of the first and probably simplest color models we all probably learned in kindergarten. RYB (which stands for Red, Yellow &, Blue) measures and describes the amount of Red, Yellow and Blue in a particular hue. For example Green is a mix of 50% Yellow + 50% Blue. More complex color model systems measure not only Hue (color range/mix ratios) but also tint, tone, shade and other characteristics required to reproduce a color precisely in various mediums (paint, ink, screen  media, textile printing etc).

The ability to reproduce a particular color in precise shades and tones is vital to carrying a visual idea beyond its original medium. Understanding the basic principles and differences of the various color models can help insure that your original design is reproduced as faithfully in print as it is on screen.

Additive Color Model vs. Subtractive Color Model

The first fundamental breakdown of color models is the way in which colors are created. Remember all that stuff about the visual color spectrum from the last article? This is where all of that information becomes important.

The Subtractive Color Model

With the subtractive color model colors are created by removing or absorbing wavelengths of light, the remaining wavelengths are reflected as color.  Subtractive color starts at white, mixes in inks, paints or dyes to achieve color – eventually enough overlapping layers of color absorbs all of the wavelengths leaving only black. Printing typically uses a CMYK color model, a great example of a subtractive color model at work.

The CMYK Color Model

CMYK, which stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (Black), a widely used subtractive color model, is often used in printing. The CMYK color model involves introducing and overlapping various percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink to reproduce millions of colors.

The Additive Color Model

The additive color model works by introducing a limited set of wavelengths to the visual area producing color. Additive color generally involves light as the medium, so it starts at black  introducing wavelengths until eventually all wavelengths are visible creating white light. Computer screens typically use some variation of an RGB color model, a perfect example of an additive color model at work.

The RGB Color Model

RGB, which stands for Red, Blue and Green,  is probably the most popular additive color model and is most frequently used in computer displays. The RGB color model involves introducing red, green and blue light in combination to create millions of colors.

Color Model Mysteries: SOLVED!

Elementary my Dear reader! Hopefully this cleared up any confusions about what color models are, described the differences and explained how they are used. Understanding color models can help you keep from making costly design mistakes and allows you to create new, exciting effects with color in your design work.

So far in the Color and Design series we’ve discussed what Color Theory is, and delved into the various Color Models – but there’s more! Continue reading the Color and Design series to discover more about how a great grasp on color can improve your design. Also, be sure to check out the 3rd party resources listed below for more on Color Models. And as always, your comments are encouraged and appreciated.

Color Model Resources



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