From Pixels to Prints: Decoding RGB and CMYK Color

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When they view one of their newly designed, newly branded print items for the first time, our clients frequently ask, “Why do my brand colors look different in print?” They’d be excused for noticing a difference in color values, and they’d be correct. We, on the other hand, are not. There are color irregularities, but there is a purpose for them.

The typical justification for this color discrepancy is that the colors we use for our clients are selected from a palette (or range) of RGB colors. They frequently see these colors on screens when working on brand identity design projects, but when they see the CMYK equivalent, it might seem completely different. In this article, we’ll examine the various color spaces and the ways in which color profiles might vary according to file formats, design programs, and—most significantly—from digital photos to print files.

What are the different color spaces? CMYK vs RGB

The CMYK and RGB color spaces may be familiar to you. If not, the following little explanation should help you grasp the situation:

Cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (CMYK) are its initials. The key plate in a conventional print color separation retains the majority of the image’s detail. The remaining ones are carefully positioned next to the key plate and are typically cyan, magenta, and yellow. In printing jobs, the key plate is often black, therefore the “K” essentially stands for black. Because each layer of ink on a piece of paper diminishes the original brightness by either absorbing certain light wavelengths or reflecting others depending on its features, CMYK is a subtractive color space. Subtractive mixing occurs when color is produced by removing light wavelengths from a white paper or other materials.

Red, Green, and Blue are referred to as RGB. The major light colors that are employed in screen-based media are these. The pixels on the screen shine at various intensities to create the RGB color space. When all three colors are present, white light is produced. As an alternative, black is produced when all three colors are absent (i.e. when there is no light). The intensity of each light or pixel can range from 0 to 255. As a result, RGB is an additive color model as light is used to blend colors in RGB.

So, why do your colors look different in print files?

The cyan, magenta, and yellow pigments used in printing are too transparent in the subtractive color space to produce opaque colors. As a result, black must be applied individually. Colors are formed in CMYK by entirely or partially absorbing some light wavelengths and reflecting others, as previously explained. This is how color is perceived while gazing at anything other than a screen. The texture of an object’s surface (often caused by the application of a pigment to such a surface) allows particular wavelengths of visible color spectrum light to be reflected back to the eye.

Simply said, RGB is the way color is created on a computer screen, but CMYK is the way color is formed when pigments are employed in print on paper or other materials – and they produce a very distinct variety of colors.

When compared to CMYK, RGB color capabilities frequently provide punchier, more brilliant colors. As a result, print struggles to match the vivid colors of screen-based media. RGB mode produces the most color combinations, with 16.7 million options compared to CMYK’s 16,000 options.

For this reason, the CMYK version of your new brand color will probably appear different from the RGB version you are used to when you first see it in print or even as PDF files on screen. It could even appear duller. Furthermore, if you are viewing a PDF proof of print artwork on your display, your RGB-based screen will attempt to represent the CMYK color data as a color that is close to the proper color.


One crucial component of color management in the design sector is the distinction between the RGB and CMYK color spaces. CMYK is used for traditional print, whereas RGB is used for screen-based media. As a result, depending on the format, colors appear differently. There are also device-dependent variances caused by the kind of RGB or CMYK profile used by the camera, scanner, monitor, printer, or paper on which the colors are shown. Color management solutions, as well as providing device-independent content in standardized color spaces, should be utilized to maintain color uniformity across devices. Understanding the various color spaces and profiles is critical for ensuring consistent and correct color representation in design work.