Have you ever flipped through a Pantone swatch book and become overwhelmed by a sea of colors or stood utterly intimidated by the wall of vivid colors from HDTVs at the BestBuy store? Unless you are blessed with the absence of color-receptive cones, colors are something that we take for granted in our daily existence. However, creating colors on electronic devices or printed materials relies on two fundamental color models: subtractive and additive.
Colors in the Physical World
The subtractive color model is when we experience physical pigments applied to a substrate and require an external light source to reflect the color to the back of the human eye. The most common subtractive color model is CMYK, which represents Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. These are also the colors listed on ink cartridges for printers in many homes and offices. This color model is subtractive because adding more ink or pigment results in less light being reflected to the viewer. When we print on a white piece of paper, the first layer of ink blocks some of the pure white wavelengths from getting through. If we print on that same sheet of paper again, the areas printed twice will appear closer to black.
For commercial printers and graphic designers, CMYK is often thought of as corresponding numbers on a scale of zero to 100%. If we use 100% of all four colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black), we get black. On the other hand, if we use zero of all four colors, we get true white.
Colors in Electronic Media
The RGB color model, which stands for Red, Green, and Blue, is designed for electronic displays such as computers and mobile phones. This model is based on the additive color model of light waves, which means that the more color you add, the closer you get to white. The scale used for RGB ranges from 0 to 255, where black is represented by R=0, G=0, and B=0, and white is represented by R=255, G=255, and B=255. This scale was developed during the transition of color computer monitors from 8-bits to 16-bits, when a single pixel could only display one of 256 colors. 
When working on a design program like Adobe InDesign or a presentation program like Apple Keynote or Office 365, you will typically find RGB and CMYK numbers listed in your color module. You can use either color model to find your desired color, and the computer will adjust accordingly.
How do the two color models align with each other?
When we compare CMYK and RGB color systems, we will discover that Cyan corresponds to Red, Magenta aligns with Green, and Yellow syncs with Blue. But you might wonder where Black fits in. Surprisingly, there is no Black in basic color theory. But when a printer mixes 100% Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow, it produces a very dark and unpleasant brown color. To avoid this, Black is added to the mix, which not only saves ink but also enhances the richness and quality of the final print.

James Speelman has been an Apple® Certified Pro in Color Management since 2006.
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