rgb and cmyk

Wikipedia Definitions

RGB and CMYK are two different color modes an artist can choose when creating a media file in Photoshop or Illustrator. But what’s the difference between the two? Why do you need to know about them?

Let’s start with what Wikipedia has to say:

RGB: The RGB color model is an additive color model in which red, green and blue light are added together in various ways to reproduce a broad array of colors. The name of the model comes from the initials of the three additive primary colors, red, green and blue.

CMYK: The CMYK color model (process color, four color) is a subtractive color model, used in color printing, and is also used to describe the printing process itself. CMYK refers to the four inks used in some color printing: cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black).

I’m sure that still may not make any sense. Allow for some translation.


RGB stands for Red Green Blue. This color model is one that you see every day. This is a color model you are looking at right now. RGB is the digital color model used for the display on your screen. Your screen is basically mixing the Red Green and Blue colors together in order to give you the display you are currently viewing.


CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Cyan is a bright almost sky blue, Magenta is a red-pink, yellow is obviously yellow and same for black. This is a color model you see every day as well. This is a 4 color process print color model. When you read a magazine, you are most likely looking at a CMYK print. Many of the stickers on the back of your laptop, also CMYK. Basically, your printer takes the CMYK colors and mixes them together through layering onto your paper.

Why K for Black? Because the K stand for key. The key is the black printing plate. But that’s a history lesson for another post.

In short definition, RGB is for digital things, like your TV, a website, your phone or computer. CMYK is for anything you print, like labels, pictures, magazines, invitations, flyers, banners and more.

Important Facts for RGB and CMYK?

It is important to know the difference between RGB and CMYK because your colors may not appear how you expected them to appear on your website or flyer.

The two most common issues that occur are:

  1. When you print a RGB file on one printer, and then go and print it on another printer, the colors will most likely appear different shades. This is because even though you are sending a RGB file to the printer, the printer still has to convert it to CMYK in order to print it. Each printer’s CMYK settings can differ slightly, causing the difference in color output. If the file was originally a CMYK file, the printer does not need to convert the file, allowing for more accurate color matching from printer to printer.
  2. When you publish a CMYK file to the web, sometimes it can appear as if it was neon colored. This is because of a color codec setting in your graphic design software. An experienced graphic designer will be able to easily identify this issue and swap the image to the proper color codec. Sometimes this issue will occur with RGB files as well, but not as often.

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