Understanding black and white as colors.

Explore color from a scientific and artistic perspective, discover what sets black and white apart from other hues, and learn about working with these fundamental shades digitally and in print.

Abstract black smoke cloud design.

What is color?

When it comes to graphic design, understanding color and how it works in tandem with shade is important. Scientifically, color is an expression of light. Certain materials absorb and reflect specific wavelengths of visible light, which results in objects taking on a certain color to the human eye. A blue flower reflects and disperses blue light back at us while absorbing all other wavelengths of light, so what you see is the color blue. When nearly all light is reflected, you see white. When no light is reflected, you see black.

Close-up photo of Pantone color samples.

Is black a color? Is white a color?

As any rainbow will demonstrate, black isn’t on the visible spectrum of color. All other colors are reflections of light, except black. Black is the absence of light. Unlike white and other hues, pure black can exist in nature without any light at all.

 

Some consider white to be a color, because white light comprises all hues on the visible light spectrum. And many do consider black to be a color, because you combine other pigments to create it on paper. But in a technical sense, black and white are not colors, they’re shades. They augment colors. “And yet they do function like colors. They evoke feelings. They can be a kid’s favorite color,” says graphic designer Jimmy Presler.

 

Is black the absence of color?

In science, black is the absence of light. And color is a phenomenon of light. But a black object or black images printed on white paper are made from pigment, not light. So artists must use their darkest color of paint to approximate black.

 

True black and true white are rare.

What you see as a pigment with a black color or a light with a white color actually contains various light or dark colors. Nothing can be pure white or pure black, except unfiltered sunlight or the depths of a black hole.

Cyan, magenta, yellow and black color ink bursts.

What colors make black? What colors make white?

The way to create black or white depends on whether you’re working with an additive color model (light-based) or a subtractive color model (ink-based).

 

Additive colors combine to create white.

Light and electromagnetic radiation both create additive color. In this model of color theory, the combination of all colors creates the perception of white. You’ll also hear this model referred to as RGB, because when you work with additive color, you use red, green, and blue as primary colors. 

 

Digital color is additive.

Additive color is used in digital design, because computer screens show hues with colored light. Each pixel is composed of three tiny specks of phosphor, which emit red, green, or blue light when struck by an electron beam. When working with color digitally, like in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, your screen uses different combinations of these lights to create all the colors you see. So what is black on a screen? No lit phosphors.

 

Subtractive colors combine to create black.

The color of pigments and inks are subtractive. Subtractive colors are made of light that’s already passed through material. Painters can combine several colors to make what looks like black paint. Printing also uses subtractive colors; cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and key or black (K) are the primary inks used. This is why printable files are called CMYK files. 

Black and white photo of a zebra face.
Black and white picture of elephants embracing trunks.

How designers can leverage black and white.

White and black may be the most important “colors” in design, as they’re integral to expressing light and shade. “If it doesn’t look good in black and white, it won’t look good in color,” says designer and illustrator Tammi Heneveld. First, try working in grayscale (black or white shades only) so you can focus on the shading and composition of your piece. Then try applying colors in Adobe InDesign or Photoshop or simply leave your image in black and white.

 

“Black and white are just as effective in conveying a mood or tone as other colors that people think of as bright and colorful,” says illustrator Jon MacNair. “They can be very striking graphically.” 

Black and white geometric abstract design.

Tips for printing blacks.

To print digital work, first convert your work from an RGB file into a CMYK file. Then calibrate your screen brightness to better imitate printed work. Turning your screen brightness to 75 percent is a safe bet. Or ask your print shop which setting is best. 

 

#000000 vs. Rich Black.

When you convert a file from RGB to CMYK in InDesign, Photoshop, or Illustrator, it will automatically convert pure RBG black (hex code #000000) to rich black, a combination of 60 percent cyan, 40 percent magenta, 40 percent yellow, and 100 percent black. That’s because the right combination of CMYK actually produces a darker-looking black than just 100 percent black ink.


Avoid the temptation to turn the levels up even higher on CMYK. “When you print with all the colors cranked up to 100 percent, it’s going to look like a mess. It’s going to oversaturate your paper,” Presler explains. “And if you print only 100 percent black, it’s going to look wimpy.”

 

On paper or digitally, you can open new doors in design by employing a deeper comprehension of black and white and their relationships to other colors. Black and white alone can perfect shading and light in your work. See what you can create using just two shades.  

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