Understanding black and white as colours.

Explore colour 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 colour?

When it comes to graphic design, understanding colour and how it works in tandem with shade is important. Scientifically, colour is an expression of light. Certain materials absorb and reflect specific wavelengths of visible light, which results in objects taking on a certain colour 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 colour blue. When nearly all light is reflected, you see white. When no light is reflected, you see black.

Close-up photo of Pantone colour samples.

Is black a colour? Is white a colour?

As any rainbow will demonstrate, black isn’t on the visible spectrum of colour. All other colours 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 colour, because white light comprises all hues on the visible light spectrum. And many do consider black to be a colour, because you combine other pigments to create it on paper. But in a technical sense, black and white are not colours, they’re shades. They augment colours. “And yet they do function like colours. They evoke feelings. They can be a kid’s favourite colour,” says graphic designer Jimmy Presler.

 

Is black the absence of colour?

In science, black is the absence of light. And colour 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 colour of paint to approximate black.

 

True black and true white are rare.

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

Cyan, magenta, yellow and black colour ink bursts.

What colours make black? What colours make white?

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

 

Additive colours combine to create white.

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

 

Digital colour is additive.

Additive colour is used in digital design, because computer screens show hues with coloured 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 colour digitally, like in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator, your screen uses different combinations of these lights to create all the colours you see. So what is black on a screen? No lit phosphors.

 

Subtractive colours combine to create black.

The colour of pigments and inks are subtractive. Subtractive colours are made of light that’s already passed through material. Painters can combine several colours to make what looks like black paint. Printing also uses subtractive colours; 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 “colours” 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 colours 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 colours that people think of as bright and colourful,” 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 per cent 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 per cent cyan, 40 per cent magenta, 40 per cent yellow and 100 per cent black. That’s because the right combination of CMYK actually produces a darker-looking black than just 100 per cent black ink.


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