Explained: The Difference Between RGB and CMYK in Printing

Categories: Artwork Guidelines, Trade Show Tips

You’ve probably heard of the two available color modes that you can choose in Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator: CMYK (also known as a 4-color mode) and RGB.

Getting the correct color mode selected in the beginning is crucial since it will, in many cases, determine the end result of your artwork after it is printed.

This article will explain the difference between RGB and CMYK and explain why CMYK is always the correct color mode for printing.

The Differences Between RGB and CMYK

RGB Stands for Red, Green, and Blue

Think way back to grade school.

Remember “Primary Colors”?

AKA Red, Green, Blue (RGB)?

When mixed together in different amounts, these three colors can create up to 16,77,216 different color combinations.

But where can you find an example of RGB? You’re probably looking at one right now.

If you’re viewing this on a computer monitor, tablet, phone, etc. then you are most likely looking at RGB colors.

A “pixel” on a display contains the 3 different colors, Red, Green, and Blue.

A picture taken of a monitor in our office which shows the individual pixels and the red, green, and blue colors each pixel contains and displays. The colors are already “mixed” by the time it reaches the camera so it is hard to take a better picture displaying the true RGB.

These colors appear bright and beautiful and have the added assistance of a backlight.

A different, non-display example would be a Christmas light. When you pull it out of storage, it has a regular green or red color, but as soon as you plug it in and power it up, it has that “artificial” bright look to it.

That’s the difference between seeing it displayed on your monitor vs printed in real life.

You or your graphic designer probably use the RGB color mode for a variety of reasons including working on your website or other online needs.

RGB, however, is NOT recommended for use with printing or really outside the world of electronics.

Which takes us to CMYK.

Why We Use CMYK Color Mode for Printing

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. (The “K” originally referenced the “key plate” in the printing process or the “detail” stage which was usually in black, but now it just refers to black)

Since printing uses pigments instead of pixels, we need a color palette for this type of print production.

The combination of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black is measured as a percent of each color to create a vast number of colors (over 10 million).

To change the photoshop color mode when you first create a file go to the right pane and find “Color Mode” and change it to CMYK.

But the biggest difference between CMYK and RBG is that CMYK deals in the “real world”. This means that this color mode correctly makes the jump from your computer to the physical world when it gets printed out.

Let’s do a small example.

If we get this color green using this mix: “C: 82%, M: 23%, Y: 100%, K: 9%”

RGB colors settings vs CMYK color settings within the color picking menu

The printer will interpret this color and print with those exact percentages of each pigment. It’s the same technique that your office or home computer uses.

These “interpreted” colors are called “process” colors.

Even when you need to match a Pantone Spot Color, the digital printer will translate the pantone color in a process color (the pigment mixture) to print out as closely as possible.

Now, let’s take a look at the most common questions we got on this topic:


The Colors on my Exhibit didn’t print out as bright as the artwork on my computer screen.  Why are they different?

The main reason is that the artwork was most likely created in RGB mode. Artwork is always printed in CMYK mode and that switch over would cause a change in appearance (see above).

Ok, so my printed colors in CMYK may not look as bright as they do on my computer monitor, is there any way to fix that?

One way to fix this is to make your exhibit backlit or purchase a backlit display. Backlit displays amplify the “dim” CMYK colors which helps solve that discrepancy between your monitor and the printed result.

It’s still a little “apples-to-oranges” when compared against your monitor, but it does help out a great deal.

I accidentally prepared my artwork in RGB Mode, can I just convert it over to CMYK no big deal?

Unfortunately, not really. You can change the artwork’s color mode, but depending on your individual artwork it may cause a small “color shift” when converted over to CMYK. It tries to fid the closest represented color in the new color profile. Sometimes it works great and other times it can be off. Photos taken from a camera tend to do well, but other spot colors may look off, like a logo for example. It is always best to create everything in CMYK from the very beginning.

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