Quick Guide to RGB and CMYK

To average people walking down the street, these acronyms probably mean absolutely nothing. But, if you are involved in print or web, you should know pay close attention to these two color profiles—RGB and CMYK.


RGB stands for “red, green, blue.” (Or, if you want to be different like one girl in my class—red, blue, green.) Cameras only have the RGB color option and Photoshop comes out of the box with RGB as its color profile. RGB has a wider variety of color options—a large gamut if you will—and is used for on screen presence. If you try to print something in RGB color mode and the hues are slightly off, this is the reason. RGB is not for print, although with new technology some printers can use RGB and compare closely to your screen. If the coloring is way off, I suggest calibrating your screen. And if this doesn’t satisfy your color craving, you’ll need to convert the profile to CMYK.

I work with print more often than I do with online imagery, so as I start a new project I change it to the desired color profiles. Photoshop likes to merge all layers together when converting the color profile to CMYK. I suggest paying close attention to this early on so you don’t have layers that can’t be used anymore.


CMYK stands for “cyan, magenta, yellow, black.” Yes, you did read that right—k is for black. This set of colors is the buddy of every color printer. A four color press will have an inkwell containing each individual color, and it will be spread onto its own roller. Once the paper hits the roller, the color is added and it continues the process through all four colors until the end. A digital printer still contains all four of these colors, but in a more powdery substance.

The CMYK color range isn’t as wide as the RGB, unfortunately, but they are still vibrant colors. If someone wanted to, they could easily print using just two of these colors without the use of the others. This would be duotoned, and is actually created by many printers today. It’s interesting to see the physical colors in paint cans or toner jugs here at our print shop, and knowing you can mix these colors by hand to create what is on screen is very special.

Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams.
—Paul Gauguin

I know this was a short post but I didn’t want to go too in depth on colors. Colors are always being researched and used in new ways, and this was just a sliver of what can be taught. That’s why it was a quick guide!