What is the difference between CMYK and RGB

Do your printers use weird acronyms that you don’t understand? Acronyms like CMYK and RGB? If they haven’t explained it properly, you’ve probably just nodded your head and pretended like you understood. Well we’re here to break it down for you!

What do these acronyms stand for?

CMYK: Cyan-Magenta-Yellow-Black
RGB: Red-Green-Blue

What is the difference between CMYK and RGB?

CMYK and RGB colours render differently depending on which medium they are used for, whether it be on the web or in print. Let’s go further into detail on this question.

colour-space-CMYKCMYK Color Mode
If printers are using a digital printing method, they would print colour on paper using CMYK colours. This is a four colour mode that utilises the colours cyan, magenta, yellow and black in various amounts to create all of the necessary colours when printing images. It is a subtractive process, which means that each additional unique colour means more light is removed, or absorbed, to create colours. When the first three colours are added together, the result is not pure black, but rather a very dark brown. The K colour, or black, is used to completely remove light from the printed picture, which is why the eye perceives the colour as black.[1]


colour-space-RBGRGB Color Mode
RGB is the colour scheme that is associated with electronic displays, such as CRT, LCD monitors, digital cameras and scanners. It is an additive type of colour mode that combines the primary colours, red, green and blue, in various degrees to create a variety of different colours. When all three of the colours are combined and displayed to their full extent, the result is a pure white. When all three colours are combined to the lowest degree, or value, the result is black. Software such as photo editing programs use the RGB colour mode because it offers the widest range of colours.[1]

How do I know when to use which one?

In short, if you’re going to be printing something, such as a business card, stationary, or a newsletter, use CMYK. CMYK does not include a white colour because it is assumed that it will be printed on a white paper and depending on the percentage of each colour that is used, the white from the paper will be used to fill the space, therefore making the shades appear lighter.

If it’s something that will only be seen digitally, use RGB. The Internet is set up to work exclusively with RGB colours and there is a simple explanation behind this. A digital monitor is made up of tiny units called pixels. These pixels are comprised of three light units, one for red, one for green, and one for blue. The RGB values are applied to these pixels, thereby setting the luminosity for each of the light units in each pixel.

It should be known that there is no perfect correlation between the two types of colours, but when converted, a very close match can be achieved.

How do CMYK and RGB render differently?

These colour render differently based on the amount of white space that is already provided and how much “mixing” of colours needs to occur. In order to get the correct colour on all mediums, the colours need to be converted. Highland Marketing did a great job of explain why RGB colours need to be converted when you’re creating something for print: “The RGB scheme has a greater range of colours than CMYK and can produce colours that are more vivid and vibrant. These colours are beyond the range of CMYK to reproduce and will come out darker and more dull in print than what is seen on the monitor or display. Because the RGB colour mode has the full range of colours, documents shown in CMYK mode will always show up precisely on-screen. RGB colours, however, will not necessarily appear in print as they do on-screen. To accurately print the document or image, it must be converted from its original RGB format to CMYK. It is possible to do this by using software such as Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator.”[1] Consequently, the same art displayed on a computer monitor may not match to that printed in a publication.


Below is an example of a photo originally produced in RGB colours converted to CMYK colours as displayed on a computer monitor. Notice how the colours are much more vibrant on the RGB picture.

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About the author

Hi! I’m Keira, and I’m the marketing director here at Toucan Print. I love sharing new and innovative ways small business owners can use print to give their marketing a boost.

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