Listen, let me tell you a story…

…about two cousins that are often confused with each other. One of them was always the more popular, the other often forgotten or unknown. Yes as you may have guessed, I am talking about light and pigment.

You see, when people talk about the color wheel and the classic “primary colors”  they are usually referring to pigments and the subtractive color wheel, which has cyan, magenta, and yellow as its primary colors (although many learned it as red, yellow, blue, which is actually different, but that is out of the scope of this discussion).

The oft’ forgotten cousin is light and the additive color wheel which has the primary colors red, green, and blue.

Now what’s all this additive/ subtractive business about, we are talking colors not math! Well don’t you fret, there is no real math involved, but let’s break down what we mean:

Light is additive because the colors we perceive are combinations of red, green, and blue light. White light is the addition of all three. If you look really close at your TV or computer screen you will see that the picture is actually made of teeny tiny pixels that are either red, green, or blue. TVs – Light

Pigments are considered subtractive because their perceived color is a result of  removing other colors. Magenta pigments appear magenta because they absorb green light and reflect red and blue light. If you look at a magazine you will see that most of the printed images are made up of dots of cyan, magenta, and yellow and also black (a combination of all pigments). Printers – Pigment

For clarity’s sake, because I know this can get a bit confusing; in both cases, what you are actually perceiving is light, so in a sense pigments do utilize the additive color wheel. Pigments alter how light is perceived by absorbing certain wavelengths of light and reflecting others. That reflected light is the subject to the additive color wheel.


This post is what resulted from an interaction I had at work today. I had forgotten some of the details about light and pigments so thought I’d revisit it and try to flesh it out.

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