Lesson 3: Color Systems


This lesson is an introduction to the physical color systems used by many technologies that we use for design. As design has moved into the digital arena, there are a variety of color spaces we must consider and we must consider the relationships between systems in order to produce accurate color. The objectives of this lesson are to:

An Introduction to Color Systems and Color Management

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Before we begin, why don't you test your abilities to see color: X-rite color challenge. It is important that you can recognize small differences in color. The more you can recognize, the stronger your color management skills will be as you calibrate your devices.

The color systems described are much different from the traditional color system. When using a digital color picker, one must come to terms with the differences, as the primaries mix with a different color wheel than the traditional color wheel as seen here:

Traditional (RYB) color wheelAdditive (RGB) color SystemSubtractive (CMY) color ModelL.A.B. (R Y G B) Color Space

As we move between these various systems, we must also rethink the ways that we mix color to produce the physical results that we intend. From left to right the systems described above are the traditional color wheel (RYB primaries), the additive color system based on Maxwell's trichromatic theory (RGB primaries), the subtractive or process color system (CYM primaries), and the L.A.B. color space (RYGB primaries). Not listed here is the HSB system for color picking, which refers to Hue, Saturation, and Brightness. This system chooses color based on the hue demonstrated on an additive color wheel in the term of degrees, the saturation in terms of percentage, and the value in terms of percentage as well. To become more familiar with these color systems, I will refer you to the following links:

And, if you care to challenge your understanding of RGB, try out these color games:

Color Management

Color systems or "spaces" are described in your computer by various profiles called, ICC profiles. These profiles contain the gamut for specific devices, and it is always the goal of the designer to work within the profiles of their system, considering the profile of the final output device. In the Adobe Creative Suite, these profiles and spaces are defined in the "color settings" or "profile" options under the "Edit" menu:

In the "color settings" options you will find the drop down menus for assigning various ICC profiles to the working space and output space allowing you to calibrate your program to both your monitor and your printer:

Unfortunately, color management is a completely device dependent process. Therefore, it is up to you, as the designer, to become familiar with any technology that you are interacting with and learn how to either download or define an ICC profile for the space that you are working in. Below are some resources to get you started, but looking into the advanced user guides of any manufacturer (such as HP, Epson, etc.) is where you will often find downloadable profiles or instructions on how to set one up for your specific device. For a complete guide to color management, please read x-rite's complete guide to color management and Chang's guide to color management.

Color Terminology

Sketchbook 1.1: Weeks 1-2: Color Wheel

Digital Color

  • Test prints and notes for your additive and subtractive color wheels (RGB and CMYK) a few of your scales and make notes on the differences that you see between the monitor and the print. Make adjustments to see if you can replicate the same color on the print as you are viewing on the monitor (test gamut shifts).
  • Notes on computer color management

Extra Challenge Project: Color Management Paper

  • Option 1: In order to better understand additive color theory: mess with the color settings on your television or computer monitor. Record what happens when you move towards the red, green, add color, subtract color, etc. Explain your findings in a 1 page paper (type written please).
  • Option 2: Explain the monitor and printer that you commonly use (Manufacturer and model). Describe the process that you take to calibrate these devices and the recommended drivers to use when managing the color space for your projects.

Color Systems Illustration

Introduction: For future reference, it is important that you have an illustration of the additive (RGB) and process (CMYK) color systems handy. Create an illustration of the additive and subtractive (process) color systems using the various color spaces and transparency options in the "Transparency" palette. Once you have successfully produced these illustrations, add a caption that explains the color space and the transparency process that was used and why it produced the described colors. Also, make a note of the ICC profiles that you used and why.

Once finished, attempt to accurately print the two diagrams and your notes so that you may include them in your sketchbook. Save and turn in a file (Lastname_Initial-Color_Systems-ART150-Date.ai) to your folder in the 4Shared drop box.

3.1: Subtractive (Process) Color System:(Center should be black), Y+C=G, Y+M=R, M+C=B

3.2: Additive Color System: RGB (Center should be white) R+G = Y, R+B=Magenta, B+G=Cyan


I spoke with the Service Berau on campus, the window in charge of printing. I was informed that the computers are all locked down and will not accept new ICC profiles. I was, however, given a list of printers that they use for printing:

As you will not be able to install drivers or create a specific profile for these printers on the school computers, I ask that you describe the process that you may take for printing these diagrams accurately.



9-1: Digital Portfolio

The digital journal will be a final digital portfolio. This is meant as a summary of the course, your learning, and your understanding of color theory. In it, you must note what projects you have reworked and how you have reworked them to better meet the objectives. It is suggested that you use InDesign for this project, but you may simply compile your work using Illustrator on multiple art boards to maintain color management properties. The goal of this portfolio is to produce a booklet to demonstrate everything that you learned throughout the term.

Every class should be working between your sketchbook for ideation and experimentation, your projects for application, and your journal for presentation. The first class period, you will be asked to use either Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop to create a unique cover for your journal. This cover should include your name, the title of the course, and utilize color in an expressive or symbolic manner describing something about you personally. Throughout the term you will be adding to this portfolio and revising projects weekly.


Student Examples: