What’s CMYK?

Print anything with Printful

CMYK is a color mixing system used in traditional offset printing with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks. Images are separated into four related images, each transformed into a plate with the right concentration of ink. CMYK can produce a large number of colors, but is limited by external factors. Subtractive color refers to how wavelengths of light interact with the world. RGB color varies light to achieve the visible spectrum and cannot be directly converted to CMYK.

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key or black. These are the four colors of ink used in the traditional method of printing hard copies of images, called offset printing. The three colors, plus black, roughly correspond to the primary colors, from which colors across the visible spectrum can be mixed. CMYK is a color mixing system that depends on chemical pigments to achieve the desired hues.

Before the advent of color inkjet or laser desktop printers, most images printed on paper used offset printing with CMYK colors. A color image is separated into its separate constituent parts to create four related images in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Each image is transformed into a plate onto which the right concentration, or amount, of colored ink is applied. When the four plates are each printed on a page, the colors recombine and form the original image. For example, a deep plum might have equal amounts of cyan (blue-green) and magenta (pink), with a black tinge.

Of course, CMYK cannot reproduce any colors that exist in the world, but it can produce a large number of them. It’s impossible to match things like a parrot feather, a rose petal, or an oak leaf, but the color scheme can come remarkably close. CMYK is able to create so many different colors because we not only use inks in varying ratios to each other, but with varying concentration, referred to as a percentage. These combinations create colors that span the spectrum in hue (what we think of as color) as well as tone or intensity. It’s important to note, however, that CMYK is limited by external factors, including paper quality, ink integrity, and halftone dot size.

Subtractive color refers to how wavelengths of light interact with the world and how our eyes interpret those interactions as color. Bouncing sunlight is basically white light, which includes all wavelengths, or colors, in the spectrum. When sunlight hits a bright orange traffic cone, the plastic material in the cone absorbs some of the red parts of the spectrum, along with most of the green, blue, and purple. All that is reflected is a little bit of red, orange and yellow which equals orange that is dangerous to our eyes. Therefore, some colors are “subtracted”, leaving behind the color we see.

Now that we live in a digital age, a lot is made of color conversions between CMYK and RGB, or red-green-blue color. RGB color varies light, rather than pigment, to achieve the visible spectrum. We encounter RGB color in monitors that actually emit light at a certain wavelength, rather than reflecting existing light. Therefore, the screen image of an image in RGB will never match the printed image in CMYK. While these color systems are related, one color cannot be converted directly to another.

Protect your devices with Threat Protection by NordVPN

Skip to content