Understanding the Difference Between RGB and CMYK

Many people are confused about the difference between working in RGB and CMYK, so here’s a handy guide that explains how the two systems work.

Working in CMYK is like painting on paper. You start with a white sheet, and any colors you add make the paper darker. Here are circles in Cyan, Magenta and Yellow.

If you combine Cyan and Magenta, you get blue.

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If you combine Cyan and Yellow, you get green.

If you combine Yellow and Magenta, you get red.

If you combine all three colors – Cyan, Magenta and Yellow – you get black. Actually, you don’t; you get a dark brown instead. That’s why commercial printing adds a fourth color, Black, to make shadows richer. And that’s how we arrive at CMYK, the world’s first dyslexic acronym. There’s some argument over what K stands for; the consensus is that it stands for Key.

Working in RGB is exactly the opposite. You start with black, and any colors you add make the darkness brighter. Here are circles in Red, Green and Blue.

If you combine Red and Green, the result is brighter still: you get yellow.

If you combine Blue and Green, you get cyan.

If you combine Blue and Red, you get magenta.

If you combine all three colors – Red, Green and Blue – you get pure white. It’s worth noting here that RGB and CMYK are almost exact opposites: the overlaps inside the CMY circles make red, green and blue, and the combinations inside the RGB circles make cyan, magenta and yellow.

When you’re creating artwork for print, you need to be aware that the RGB color gamut is much wider than the CMYK gamut. This means you can create much brighter, more saturated colors in RGB than can ever be printed in CMYK.

If you’re working in RGB, you can check how the image will look when converted to CMYK by choosing View > Proof Colors, or using the shortcut Command Y (Mac) / Ctrl Y (Windows). Here, you can see how the saturated colors in this clown look much duller when converted to CMYK. So if you’re working for print, you’ll need to adjust the colors to avoid disappointment later.

Check out the video version of this tutorial below, and get a link to download the original artwork at https://www.2minutephotoshop.com/difference-between-rgb-and-cmyk/

Steve Caplin is a freelance photomontage artist based in London. His work has appeared in every national UK newspaper, as well as magazines around the world including Businessweek, Men’s Health, Reader’s Digest and many more. He is the author of the best-selling How to Cheat in Photoshop, as well as 100% Photoshop, Art & Design in Photoshop and 3D Photoshop. He writes regularly for CreativePro and is a trainer at Lynda.com. His YouTube channel 2 Minute Photoshop is a growing collection of handy Photoshop tips, each just two minutes long. When he’s not at his computer Steve builds improbable furniture, which can be seen at curieaux.com.