The Basics: CMYK vs. RGB

There are two different colour schemes – for the purpose of this blog – that you can choose from when creating a document – CMYK and RGB. However, which system should you use and why?

CMYK is the most widely used process system for replicating full colour printing onto paper.

The process splits a full colour image into cyan, magenta, yellow and black (‘CMYK’). These separated colours are printed on top of each other to reproduce a full colour image.

Using just these four colour elements – CMYK – a printer can produce almost any colour, through blending multiple variations of the four process colours. It is when a mix of these colours are layered on top of each other that your document becomes the colours you expect it to be.

On the other hand, RGB (Red, Green, Blue) is a system which is used to replicate colours that will only be used to view on screen via the projection of light.

A number of desktop publishing software packages, namely those used to edit photography, now use RGB colour splits too – in line with the rise in digital photography.

Artwork which is set up using RGB for print will not translate to the CMYK process colours needed to print documents onto paper. This is why it’s very important to choose your colour selection carefully before starting a document.

Why won’t the two colour schemes translate? Because they use different colour splits the final colour produced by RGB and then by CMYK will never quite match.

So if you use a RGB colour process to create your artwork expect a degradation or changes in the final document once it’s printed.

Always set up your artwork using the correct colour system – CMYK for print, RGB for digital – and don’t be afraid to ask for help with this! 

Additionally, it’s advisable to use a colour guide when first choosing colours to ensure that you always have the right colour pallet, whether you’re using RGB or CMYK systems.

The Pantone Colour Matching System is a great resource for ensuring you choose the correct CMYK colours and they can be matched to RGB processes too!

  • For bespoke projects or specialist advice about print projects, ask for help at our sister agency, Northern Print Solutions.
  • If you are looking for quick guides to send your artwork to Trade Print Solutions, check out our resources here.