2 min read |  Posted Nov 4, 2013

RGB vs CMYK vs Pantone


(R)ed, (G)reen, (B)lue


(C)yan, (M)agenta,
(Y)ellow, Blac(K)


(P)antone (M)atching (S)ystem

What is RGB?

RGB stands for red, green and blue – the primary colors of visible light. RGB is the color of television screens and computer monitors.

When combined in equal amounts, red, green, and blue appear white.

What is CMYK?

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black.

Three of these – cyan, magenta and yellow – are the secondary colors of visible light.

Black (abbreviated K) is used to darken hues created by the other three colors.

What is PMS/Pantone?

PMS stands for Pantone Matching System®, a system used by printers around the world to select, specify, match, and control ink colors.

The Pantone Matching System® formula guide is a book of printing ink formulas and samples on coated, uncoated, and matte coated stock in a fan format.

The PMS book is what we use when helping you select color for your project.

Whereas cyan, magenta, and yellow inks are combined in various percentages to produce a specific color, a PMS or “spot” color ink is one single hue.

Why RGB Colors Don’t Always Reproduce as CMYK or PMS

Ever wonder why your printed piece looks somewhat different than it did on your computer monitor?

There is a scientific reason for this—the RGB phosphors are capable of producing many more colors than the process printing inks.

Those process printing inks, when combined, cannot always match exactly the single hue of a PMS spot color.

To put it more simply: there is not a perfect overlap in the range of colors that are visible to the human eye, reproducible with RGB additive color, and reproducible with CMYK subtractive color.

Whereas the human eye can see billions of colors, RGB can reproduce 16 million, and CMYK printing will only produce 5-6 thousand colors…

…which means some colors will convert from RGB to CMYK fairly well (because the color is in the CMYK color gamut) and others will convert poorly (when the RGB is outside the CMYK color gamut).

Try this exercise to illustrate the color gamut incompatibilities:

Using PageMaker, Quark XPress, InDesign, or PhotoShop, convert RGB blue to CMYK. Watch what happens to the color. Does it turn to purple? Now reduce the percentage of magenta by 50% and watch it turn back to blue. This is a dramatic example of how additive and subtractive color spaces are not perfectly overlapped.

Having trouble deciding which to use?
We’re happy to assist in any way we can. How well will my design print?

Randy Monroe