RGB vs CMYK – Or Why Your Colours Look Different

As we’ve explained before, designs do look different printed to on screen. The reason behind this is all to do with how RGB and CMYK (the two main colour making models) work.

The difference between RGB and CMYK

There are two main different colour models that are used to create colours. One is called RGB, and the other is called CMYK and both work quite differently – which is why when you compare colours between the two that they will look different.

Guide to RGB (Red, Green, Blue)

The RGB colour model is an additive colour model which mixes red, green and blue light to create a broad range of colours.

RGB vs CMYK – Or Why Your Colours Look Different image RGBRGB

It is called an additive model because it creates new colours by adding two or more other coloured wavelengths together to create a new colour. This method starts with black (the absence of colour) and adds different colours until you reach white.

RGB is the colour model used on screens (so on television, computer screens, tablets and mobile phones). However, it is device dependent which means that the colour will look different on different devices as they will each detect and reproduce the given RGB code slightly differently. You’ll probably have noticed this whenever you’ve gone shopping for a new tv and it can be quite noticeable how differently different screens will display the same colour (making the same person’s skin tone look more yellow, green, peach etc).

Guide to CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key [black])

The CMYK colour model is a subtractive colour model, so it works the opposite way to RGB.

It is called a subtractive colour model because you begin with white and add colours, getting darker until you reach black.

CMYK is the colour model used for printing on paper. While this method is more consistent than RGB, it can still differ from printer to printer depending on their equipment and the quality of their ink. High quality solid colour is created by printing a high number of dots per inch (dpi). Different saturations and shades are created by a technique called halftoning the colours (i.e. only tiny dots of the colour are used in a pattern small enough that the human eye perceives solid colour).

So in a nutshell, why does my printed artwork look different?

When you first saw your designs you would have viewed them on a screen using RGB, which creates colour in the opposite way that CMYK does. The codes do not directly match up, and while all efforts are taken to match exactly it isn’t always possible.

Where does Pantone come into this?

The Pantone Matching System was patented by Lawrence Herbert of the Pantone printing company in 1962. Herbert used his chemistry knowledge to systematise and simplify the company’s stock of pigments and inks and create a reliable set of guides. This allows designers to colour match specific colours, regardless of the equipment used to produce the colour. There are also colour charts that can be found online which approximate pantone colours in RGB.

What can I do about getting the colour I want?

Provide us with the pantone or CMYK colour code that you want and we are more than happy to match it – this is the best way to ensure that the colour you want is the printed colour you’ll receive. However, there is no 100% guaranteed method – the best thing to do is to get a print proof and talk to your printer.

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