My print isn’t as colorful as it is on my screen: RGB vs CMYK

My print isn’t as colorful as it is on my screen: RGB vs CMYK
By: Luis Martinez

A client concern that we’ve come across in past has been “Why does this colorful image look so bad printed out? Can’t it look like it does on my monitor?” The simple answer is no. This is because the color presented to you on your monitor is using light, whereas the color you’re seeing on a page uses colorants. Think ink or paint.

RGB: Additive color

When you view a monitor, the colors you see are Red, Green and Blue, the primary colors of light. When added together equally, you get white. Turn off all lights, and you get black. Monitors still show you light mixes, but it’s done optically by having the red, green and blue lights so close together.

Things to note:
• Color vibrancy is seen through your eyes viewing illuminated colored lights being “added” together
• Mix two RGB colors together and you’ll get cyan(G+B), magenta(R+B) and yellow(R+G)

CMYK: Subtractive color

Cyan, magenta and yellow are the primary colors when dealing with ink on paper. Add these together equally, you’ll get a grey. Lay no color down, and you get white. Because grey is the darkest color you can achieve, black is introduced. In printing this is your key plate that gets ran first. Hence, the “K” for key.

Things to note:

• When you see cyan ink on paper, it’s stopping your eyes from seeing green and blue light. Essentially, “subtracting” light.
• Unless youre adding more plates, a Pantone neon green for example, you won’t be able to get close to what a colored light can produce.
• Red, Yellow and Blue were primary colors before color theories were developed. Think of the only three crayons you needed in kindergarden.


Keeping images in RGB format is the best thing you can do to retain color vibrancy on your monitors, cell phones, etc. You will see bright green and neon blues.  If you decide to print an image, work colorful sections yourself in CMYK. Don’t let a computer decide your blue sky, that can’t be reproduced, should just be a dirty purple.