The Difference Between CMYK vs RGB and When to Use Them

The difference between CMYK & RGB. If you ever looked really closely at an image in the newspaper, You’ll notice that the image is made up of tiny little dots. Observe a little closer, and you’ll see that there’s only 4 colors of dots: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. If you were to do this to your TV screen or the computer screen you’re looking at right now, You’ll find that it’s somewhat similar - tiny little units that create an image. But instead of dots you’ll find pixels, and instead of the four colors previously mentioned, you’ll find Red, Green and Blue. These are the two color models RGB and CMYK. What’s the difference between these two and why do we need two of them? RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue while CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (essentially Black). If you use Photoshop, you might’ve noticed that you can edit between the two systems interchangeably on our computers. You might’ve even noticed that the colors are opposites of each other: Red – Cyan Magenta – Green Yellow – Blue In both models, they can make a similar color range. The reason we need two, even though you can switch between them, is that they’re better at different things. “Subtractive” vs “Additive” RGB is an additive color model that utilizes the three primary hues to create an array of colors. Today, it’s mostly used for electronic systems, but it stems from an earlier understanding of Trichromacy. The first color photographs were produced by taking the same image in black and white three times, each with a different color filter of Red, Violet-Blue and Green. RGB forms color by superimposing colored light on a black surface. The less light, the darker the image, the more light, the brighter it is. Combine the full color of the three lights and you get white. CMYK is a subtractive model. It is often the model used for printing and dyes. Unlike the lights of RGB, we perceive CMYK by how much it absorbs certain wavelengths. Those not absorbed are what remains visible to us. The less color applied, the lighter it is, while the more color applied results in a darker color. And Black? The letter K stands for “Key,” a term that is a vestige of printing presses, when plates needed to be carefully keyed, or aligned with the key of the black key plate. There are multiple Benefits of using black: 1. Cyan, magenta and yellow alone don’t actually create a rich black. It’s more of a brownish color, especially if the file you’re printing from has a tint to the black areas. So you need a black ink to achieve a true black, which is important for creating a deeper contrast and sharper image. 2. Second, it’s much easier to print black and white documents without having to deal with the colors. Imagine trying to print a page of text with only the three colors: A misalignment of the paper and you’ll have stray colors out of place! 3. In addition, printing three colors as opposed to one can make the paper overly saturated, causing the ink to bleed and blur, which isn’t ideal for small texts, where the fine details are important. 4. Lastly, color ink is expensive! Black reduces the amount of color ink used in darker or less saturated colors.  So black is much more practical, cheaper, and faster than CMY alone. Wait.. Isn’t RGB supposed to be the primary colors that create all the other colors? Why dosen’t RGB work with a subtractive model? Why can’t you print with RGB ink? There actually are some advantages to printing in RGB. A red ink will be more vibrant than an red created by combining Magenta and Yellow. As a general rule, the more you mix physical pigments, the darker and duller the color will become. This is because inks are limited by the fact that they are not as pure as the color values of light. So when it comes to a bright red, blue, or green hue, RGB will produce a more vibrant and vivid color. RGB also mixes to a richer black than CMY does, so you would get richer colors in this area. However, Notice how in RGB, there’s no way to produce yellow, and harder to create lighter colors. In the end, don’t count on your print to appear exactly as it does on your screen. So when should you use each color model? If you’re making something that will be viewed on a screen, such as a video or website, RGB would be appropriate. Anything printed will typically be in CMYK, unless your specific printer uses a different system. Just check the type of ink cartridges it accepts. And remember how I said that the two can be converted from one to another? The conversion process isn’t perfect, and the colors won’t be exactly the same because it goes through a color management system and there’s many different variables. That’s why multiple color conversions can cause a loss of accuracy. If you just try to print a photograph from RGB on a CMYK printer, the printer will likely misinterpret the colors and they will be slightly off. Maybe it matters to you, maybe it doesn’t, depending on the nature of the project and your specific needs. What about scanning? Scanners are often RGB, but if you’re going to print it, wait until you put it in Photoshop to convert it to CMYK. Photoshop and Illustration are likely to do a much better job at managing the conversion. Definitely edit the color in the mode that your final output will be, rather than converting it after all your hard work is done.


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