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Color Models Explained

When we were in school, most of us learned about one color model: the RYB color model, which uses red, yellow, and blue as its primary colors. 

This was the most relevant color model for us as kids when our experiences working with color were mostly limited to blending finger paints or layering crayons.

But the world of color is much more complicated than that, which is why there are several color systems to help us navigate and understand the world of color. 

In this post, we’ll explain what color models are, why we need several of them, and we’ll provide a quick overview of each major model to get you started understanding them.

Colorful RAL color model

What Is a Color Model?

Color models are a way of specifying the visible spectrum of color using numeric values or using color components. They’re a way of conceptualizing, discussing, viewing, and creating color in art, design, advertising, and more. 

When an individual model is associated with a clear description of how the components should be interpreted (like viewing conditions, etc.), the resulting set of colors is called “color space,” which describes ways in which human color vision can be modeled.

No matter what you’re doing, if you’re working with color, you need to understand color theory and know which color model you’re working with.

Why Are There Different Color Systems in the First Place?

Because there’s a whole world of color, and color is just too complicated and nuanced to be summed up with a single color model!

The different color models apply to different uses of color, such as print, on digital screens, and in pigments. Knowing the differences can make all the difference for whatever colorful project you’re about to tackle.

Color Models

There are two main categories of color models: subtractive and additive. An additive color model (like the RGB model) is based on transmitting light. Subtractive color models (like CMYK) are based on reflected light.

Each color model is used for something different, which is why it’s important to know which one applies.

RYB

RYB primary colors
The RYB is the color model used by artists

The RYB is also known as the “traditional color” wheel. It’s the color model we all learned about in school. This subtractive color model is used when mixing pigments and has most of its applications in painting, art, and interior design.

Primary Colors

Secondary Colors

RGB

RGB color model

When you’re working with screen-based designs and colors, you’ll want to use this additive color model: RGB. 

This system uses the sRGB color space and has practical limitations that prevent it from making all visible colors—it makes 16,777,216 colors instead.

It starts with a blank black canvas (the display screen of any digital device like a TV, phone, or tablet), then mixes light to show color on the screen. To create white, you have to blend all primary colors in equal measure.

For that reason, televisions or computers only need to produce mixtures of red, green, and blue light. 

In this system, a numerical value between 0 and 255 is assigned to each primary light color. This level of precision lets you specify exactly what color of light you want to work with.

Primary Colors

  • Red
  • Green
  • Blue

Secondary Colors

  • Red + Green = Yellow
  • Red + Blue = Magenta
  • Green + Blue = Cyan

CMYK

CMYK color model

In the world of commercial printing (and perhaps even your home printer) and lithography, the CMYK color system applies.

In this subtractive color system, white is the blank slate. Colors are created by mixing pinks and applying them to the paper surface under white light. This blocks specific color wavelengths. 

To the human eye, this creates the desired color to appear on paper.

You might be wondering why the CMYK color model has four letters in its acronym instead of three, like RGB or RYB. That’s because key (or black) is essentially treated as a primary color in this scheme as well.

Primary Colors

Secondary Colors

  • Magenta + Yellow = Red
  • Cyan + Magenta = Blue
  • Cyan + Yellow = Green

Pantone

Pantone color model

When you want peak color accuracy, the Pantone Color Matching System (PMS) is the way to do. Pantone revolutionized the printing color process by creating a standardized system. 

This is still widely used today on most commercial printers to replicate tones and visuals, according to a standardized guideline for maximum color-matching and consistency. This provides a way for any manufacturer to match a color in print.

The Pantone system varies from CMYK because it doesn’t use a combination of various particular colors. It doesn’t really have primary colors. 

Instead, each Pantone color is defined as a specific individual unit. Most Pantone colors are created from a mix of 13 base pigments. 

Each unique color is given a number, making it easy to refer back to and avoid color inconsistencies or communication issues. Pantone currently includes a total of over 1,800 different colors in their industry.

Pantone is the most accurate model for color matching. It was originally used in the graphics industry but is now used across a wide range of industries and use cases. 

It’s especially effective for branding. But its main downsides are that it’s time-consuming and expensive to use.

RAL

RAL color model

This is less of a color system and more of a color collection. RAL doesn’t use primary or secondary colors

Instead, RAL includes 213 colors used for powder coating and varnishing on things like van artwork. It defines matte, glossy, and metallic surface colors, providing a baseline for coatings. 

It’s used mainly for powder coating, varnish, and plastic coloring. It’s the go-to system when designing physical products that need to be coated.

Final Words on Color Models

When you first begin to learn about the breadth of the world of color systems, it can feel overwhelming. 

The truth is, you’ll probably only need to familiarize yourself with a handful of these in order to accomplish what you’re trying to do. 

But knowing the other color systems exist will provide a foundation of information that will make the world of color much easier to navigate!