Digital Artist

RGB versus CMYK

Tips & Tutorials
April Madden

Is CMYK for print? Is RGB for web? Find out with our quick guide to basic colour profiles

RGB versus CMYK is something that we get a lot of emails about so here’s a quick walkthrough to help you understand what’s best for your project and when.

  • RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue and is the way that your computer monitor or tablet displays colours on screen
  • CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK and is the way that colours are displayed when printed on paper
  • RGB is an additive colour model – colours come from a source that emits light (your screen) and light colours can be mixed together until white light is created
  • CMYK is a subtractive colour model – colours come from inks (or paints, or dyes) that are overlaid until they shut out different wavelengths of light and produce different colours
  • RGB is best when you’re working on a piece of digital art on your screen
  • CMYK is best when you want to print a piece of digital art on paper
essay cause and effect

The problem with working in RGB and then converting to CMYK is the difference in colour and tone that this can create – especially with green tones. Take a look at the image above and you’ll see that the RGB seahorse looks bright and shiny, while his CMYK friend is a bit dull and muddy. So how can we make an RGB image look good as CMYK? Two words: Adjustment layers! Once you’ve converted your image from RGB to CMYK, create a new Adjustment layer for Hue/Saturation and bump those tones back up, typically by pushing the Hue towards the greener part of the spectrum and increasing the Saturation. Experiment with your own images to find the result that works for you – Adjustment layers are non-destructive so if you don’t like the effect you can just delete it without affecting your image. Remember to save your original RGB before you experiment with CMYK too!