RGB, Screen, and CMYK Colors

What every Graphic artist should know about color

When we were young, Sesame Street and other children’s programming told us what our colors were, and we learned them with vigor. And while no one disputes that blue is blue and that red is red, as we have grown older, we have come to realize that things are not so concrete. There are hues, tones, and variables that can change color drastically. This is especially true if you are a graphic artist working on digital media. The RGB, CMYK, and screen colors can be confusing, not to mention expensive (if you use the wrong color combinations) to comprehend. This article is meant to colorize some of those grey areas concerning RGB, CMYK, and screen colors.


This is perhaps the easiest and the oldest way to look at colors. RGB simply stands for red, green, and blue. It is the way in which most visual programs are designed. The colors are designed with a level of each of these colors. RGB colors are additive colors, meaning that the more of a color you add the brighter the color will get. This is due, in part to the light which emits from the colors. And while it may seem odd that the format is not RYB (red, yellow, blue), these are the primary colors of computers and graphics programs as well as in many physics and science publications.

RGB is used for digital publications, such as online magazines and emails. As the online communities still rely upon RGB, it is important to understand the various ways in which to present these colors. It is also encouraged that online publishers understand the dpi requirements for various publications. Not everything should be made in 72 dpi format.


CMYK is commonly associated with print. And it is for this reason that most professional software options on the market have the option to switch to CMYK format. The simulated visual gives the graphic artist the ability to gauge the printer output of the design from the screen. Additionally, because there is now the ability to adjust the cyan, magenta, yellow and black, greater control can be given to the hues and the tones within a piece. Specifically, a graphic artist can use the Pantone information to color match exactly what will be output to the printer.

If a project is to be printed, it is strongly advised that you use CMYK. Using RGB could shift the colors to a brighter hue then intended. Remember that RGB emits light. Also, CMYK is subtractive while RGB is additive. While the colors may appear to be the same, the methodology used for making those colors are as different as apples and oranges.

Screen Colors

Even if you have your computer set to CMYK, there is a high probability that what you see on the screen and what you print will be slightly different. True, with the HD and UHDX formats, the margin of this is diminishing, but there are still limitations as to the transference from digital to paper. Consider, if the resolution is set to 72 dpi on a monitor which has an older graphics card Cobalt blue may look more like an Ultramarine blue. Put that same color on a computer that has a NVIDIA graphics card and 300 dpi and you will see a dramatic difference in the clarity and the depth of the color.

The point is this. No matter how well you plan the composition or artwork, there will be variables based upon your screen and your printer (remember to always match your printer dpi and screen/software dpi). While you can get really close, it is almost impossible to get 100% spot on every time.

Fixing the color issue

One of the best methods for having color constancy in your work is to use swatches and Pantone which are used in the printing industry. Typically, these are CMYK based. And although you may find that the color differs from your printed swatch or sample, you can get a visual of how the color will appear in print. Serious graphic artists are encouraged to use a Pantone book, so that he or she can have a quick reference to colors which might be needed. Do not be afraid to print out your design as you go and compare your colors to your Pantone/swatch book. Continuity in your design and in the print is more important than getting the job done quickly.

As a side note to color, remember to separate your color layers if submitting your design to a printer. Stacking your colors may render your design useless (if the printer will not separate your layers) or could result in unwanted bleeding of colors in your design. When creating swatches, ensure that you save the swatches to the file being used and notify your desired printer of any customizations.

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