Know Like A Pro


Ryan Sias

Color Modes; RGB and CMYK

RGB color and CMYK color are common terms in both design and print that you might have heard if you’ve spent any time in either of those worlds. No, they’re not the names of Elon Musk’s future grandchildren, they are color modes, referring to the color space used when designing a document. Our handy guide will explain these rascals, explain RGB vs CMYK and help you to get the best color results for your artwork!

RGB Meaning

RGB is the color space you are likely seeing right now, unless you’ve printed out this article (not likely!). It refers to the primary colors red, green and blue, and by using light they are precisely combined at varied intensity to make over 16 millions colors!

CMYK Meaning

CMYK is the color space you are seeing on pretty much anything printed that you can imagine. It refers to the colors cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). These are all printed onto paper or other material using a pattern of tiny dots of each color, and your brain will interpret the giant mess of dots as a colorful image. Very tricky of you, CMYK!

Understanding The Difference Between RGB and CMYK

RGB, An Additive Color Mode

When trying to understand RGB vs CMYK, an easy way is to start from the very beginning. With RGB, which is an additive color mode, think of the starting point as your computer monitor and how it looks when it’s turned off - the screen is black. When you turn it on, different colors of light (yes, red, green and blue light) mix together at varied intensities to create the color space that you are seeing. You are essentially adding color and brightness to your document using light. When red, green and blue all mix together at maximum brightness, you’ll see white!

Image of a Printworks logo with CMYK Colors.
Image of a Printworks logo with RGB colors.

CMYK, A Subtractive Color Mode

The CMYK color mode is quite different, almost opposite. CMYK colors, when on paper, will absorb light, rather than providing it! Think of the starting point of CMYK as a sheet of white paper. This is your baseline brightness - and CMYK, which is a subtractive color mode, will actually subtract brightness from your sheet of paper by adding varied amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow and black. When you add cyan, magenta and yellow together at maximum intensity, you’ll get (wait for it) - black! Well, it’s not quite all the way there, it actually makes more of a dark brown. This is why black is added as the fourth color in order to print those nice, inky blacks!

To make things more confusing, black alone at its maximum value is not the darkest black available within the CMYK color space. Many designers and printers will add some cyan, magenta and yellow into the mix to create what is called rich black. Fancy, right?!

CMYK Printing

The analogies of a computer screen for RGB and a sheet of paper for CMYK are appropriate, because you will want to have your final application in mind when choosing which color mode to design your document in. If you are planning on using your artwork for use on screens such as a computer monitor or phone, the RGB color space will give you the brightest and most accurate colors. However, if you are designing with print in mind, the CMYK color space is the best option. It might be tempting to use the RGB color mode because the colors will look more vibrant on your screen, but that is exactly why - because you are viewing them on your computer monitor. In fact, even when you choose CMYK as your color mode, you are actually still viewing the colors in RGB (because it’s on a screen)! The design software mimics what the color will look like when printed in CMYK, therefore giving you a more accurate representation of how colors will look on paper.

However, if you were late to this party and designed your artwork in RGB and need the document to go to print, it’s not the end of the world! You can in fact still print an RGB file, however keep in mind that your colors will likely look a bit different than they did on your screen, because the printer will need to convert your RGB colors to CMYK. The good news is that modern digital printing devices do a much better job of converting colors to CMYK, creating much better conversions than possible in the past. Hooray technology!

Converting RGB to CMYK

While we can absolutely convert your RGB file to CMYK, you will likely see the best results if you switch your document to CMYK before submitting your artwork to Printworks. This way you will have a better idea of how your file will look when printed and you are able to adjust colors if you prefer. If you plan on having a lot of vibrant colors in your design, it might be a good idea to switch to CMYK as your working color space early on in your design process. Luckily, you don’t need a color converter, you can change color modes right in the safety of your own design software!

There you have it, you are now a bonafide expert in RGB vs CMYK. Go show off your newly gained knowledge, nerrrrrd!