CMYK & RGB: What they are and how they work

cmyk-rgbOne thing that you’ll need to know if you’re going to be designing, is how the colors that you see on your computer screen differ from the colors that will print out on your (or anyone else’s) printer. There are three color modes that we’re going to talk about.

The first one is easy, it’s called Grayscale. Basically, this color mode is black with all variations of gray. No color. The next two are important. They are CMYK and RGB.

RGB
Short for red, green, and blue, this color mode is made up of primary colors used to simulate natural color on computer monitors and television sets. When you see any picture on the Internet, or graphic on your computer screen it will be in RGB. When you create something on the computer, you are seeing it in RGB, with the exception of using a design program where you can alter the color mode of your file for viewing and printing purposes.

CMYK
CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow, black (K represents black because “B” was already used to represent the color blue. Black is the Key Plate or Keyline color in the printing process, therefore K is used to represent black). These are the printer colors used to create color prints. Most color printers, ink-jet, laser, dye-sublimation, thermal, and crayon printers use these as their printer colors. CMYK is also referred to as 4-color process, due to the four colors being used. A printer that will use this process will print with these inks one by one in order, usually on “plates” or surfaces used to hold the ink. Cyan will be first, then magenta, then yellow, then black. If you have an ink-jet printer at home, it will use the same 4-color combination, but all four inks will be applied at once in one run through. Also, creating something in CMYK mode is the same thing as creating it in colors that can be separated. Have you ever tried to create a T-shirt design or newspaper ad, and the printer asked that you separate the colors? This basically means that the file must be in CMYK mode. The printer needs it in this mode so that the file can be separated into the four colors and a separate printing plate can be made for each of the colors.

One major difference between the color mode on your computer screen (RGB) and the color mode for print (CMYK) is that if you’re using a design program where you can choose the color mode you’d like to work in, you’ll notice that RGB colors will appear brighter and more vivid. Ink cannot exactly replicate the colors that come from light, so on the computer, your design program will show CMYK colors, which are going to appear slightly darker on your screen. Keep this in mind when making your design. You want to know as much as possible about what your output will look like in comparison to what you see on the screen.

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