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How does CMYK make colors?

How does CMYK make colors?

CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, and key/black) is a color model used in printing and design. It refers to the four ink colors used in many color printing processes. Understanding how CMYK works and mixes colors can help designers and printers optimize images and artwork for the best possible printed output.

The CMYK color model is a subtractive model, which means the colors are created by subtracting wavelengths of light. This is different from additive color models like RGB (red, green, blue) where colors are produced by adding wavelengths together. Subtractive and additive color mixing follow different rules and produce different results.

How CMYK Works

In the CMYK model, cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks or dyes are applied to a surface like paper or fabric. These colored inks absorb and subtract some wavelengths of light while reflecting others back to our eyes. Our eyes perceive the reflected wavelengths as color.

For example, a cyan ink absorbs red light while reflecting green and blue light. When all the colors overlap on the paper, they combine to create a range of different hues, tints, and shades.

The key (black) ink is included in the model to provide deeper blacks. Without it, combining C, M, and Y inks would only produce a muddy brown color rather than a solid black.

Primary Color Mixing

When mixing the primary CMY colors:

Cyan + Magenta = Blue
Cyan + Yellow = Green
Magenta + Yellow = Red

This makes sense when we look at the wavelengths being absorbed and reflected.

For example, cyan ink absorbs red light while reflecting blue and green. Magenta absorbs green while reflecting red and blue. When combined, the red light absorbed by the cyan and the green light absorbed by the magenta are subtracted out, leaving only blue being reflected to our eyes.

The same principles apply for the other color combinations. Cyan and yellow together absorb red and blue, leaving green. Magenta and yellow absorb blue and green, leaving only red.

Secondary Color Mixing

Things get more complex when mixing secondary colors. Secondary colors are created by combining two primary colors. In the CMYK model, these are:

Red + Cyan = Violet
Yellow + Cyan = Green
Yellow + Magenta = Red

For example, red ink reflects red light while absorbing blue and green. Cyan ink reflects blue and green light while absorbing red. When combined, the red light from the red ink and the green light from the cyan ink are reflected back to our eyes, producing the color violet.

The same principles apply when mixing the other secondary colors. Two primary colors combined make the secondary color between them on the color wheel.

Tertiary Colors

Tertiary colors are made by combining a primary and secondary color. These include:

Red + Violet = Red-Violet
Yellow + Green = Yellow-Green
Cyan + Green = Blue-Green

As more colors are combined, more wavelengths are subtracted, desaturating the final color. For example, combining red and violet ink absorbs out more blue-green light, resulting in a less saturated red-violet hue.

Black (K)

The key or black ink serves several important functions in CMYK printing:

– Provides solid blacks – Combining CMY does not create true black, only muddy browns. The black ink absorbs all light wavelengths.

– Saves ink – Using black ink rather than layering CMY to create black is more ink-efficient.

– Deepens shadows – Adding black enhances shadow areas in images.

– Sharpens text – Pure black text printed over black ink looks crisper than mixing CMY to create black text.

– Controls density – Varying the black ink controls the overall density and contrast of colors without altering the hue.

How Printers Use CMYK

Professional digital printers and presses use the CMYK process to reproduce color artwork and photography:

1. The image is separated into four channels – one for each CMYK ink color.

2. The channels indicate how much ink should be applied for each pixel. Higher values mean more ink.

3. Tiny droplets of colored inks are precisely applied to the paper one at a time.

4. Overlapping dots of different inks merge optically to create the full color image.

Varying the ratios of the four inks allows the printer to reproduce a wide gamut of colors. Additional inks like light cyan and light magenta can expand the gamut further.

Why CMYK for Print?

There are several key reasons CMYK is used for commercial printing rather than RGB which is used for screen display:

Ink limits – CMYK map efficiently to the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks used in printing. Screens use light instead of inks so are not limited to set colors.

Color mixing – CMYK follows the subtractive model of ink/surface color mixing, while RGB follows the additive model of light mixing.

Wider range – CMYK can produce colors outside of the RGB gamut, like bright neon greens.

Light stability – Printed colors using CMYK inks will appear the same in any lighting conditions, unlike RGB colors which vary.

Dot patterns – Halftone screening can only be applied to CMYK channels, not RGB. This converts images into printable dot patterns.

Challenges with CMYK

While CMYK is indispensable for full-color printing, it does come with some limitations:

Narrower gamut – While wider than RGB, the CMYK gamut cannot produce some bright, saturated hues. Deep blues, purples, and greens have less range.

Halftone patterns – Mixing inks optically can cause unwanted dot patterns like moiré effects in prints.

Color shifts – Converting from RGB loses some gamut, shifting some colors.

Black changes – Defining “rich black” and adding black is left up to user preference and profiles.

Ink and paper variances – Different inks and paper affect the final printed colors.

Converting RGB to CMYK

Converting RGB images and designs to the CMYK profile is an important preparation step for commercial printing. There are two main ways of performing this critical conversion:

Built-in converter – Most design programs like Adobe Photoshop and InDesign include automatic conversion options in the color settings. These attempt to map RGB values to similar CMYK values. Settings can tweak and improve the mapping.

Color profiles – For precision, device-specific CMYK color profiles can map to the exact color gamut of the intended printer and inks. This tries to squeeze the RGB colors into the smaller CMYK gamut with minimal clipping.

Neither method is able to perfectly convert all RGB colors. There will always be some shift, especially for bright, saturated hues. Good CMYK preparation tries to minimize this shift as much as possible ahead of printing.

Optimizing Images for CMYK

To get the best printed results in CMYK, images should be properly prepared and optimized:

– Use the correct CMYK profile rather than just a generic web conversion.

– Convert to CMYK as late as possible in the workflow.

– Flatten layers before converting to preserve texture and detail.

– Adjust levels beforehand for maximum dynamic range.

– Reduce overall saturation slightly, as saturated colors are most affected.

– Touch up colors out of the CMYK gamut like bright greens and oranges.

– Use black ink for any solid blacks rather than rich black mixing.

– Sharpen images slightly to compensate for dot gain softening.

– Add noise to minimize banding artifacts in gradients and shadows.

Following these best practices helps images look their absolute best in the CMYK color space and printed on paper.

When to Use CMYK vs. RGB

Knowing when to use the CMYK or RGB color modes is also important:

– Use RGB for website designs, apps, software, and any onscreen media.

– Use CMYK for commercial printing jobs, brochures, flyers, posters, magazines, etc. Anything that will be physically printed.

– Stick with RGB for images shared online. CMYK will look dull and muted on screens.

– Images like logos will need both RGB and CMYK versions for digital and print use.


Understanding the principles of CMYK color mixing allows designers to better predict the printed results and optimize images for that gamut. Following best practices for converting to and preparing CMYK ahead of printing helps ensure colors are reproduced as accurately as possible.

While challenging at times, mastering CMYK is a critical skill for designers regularly preparing print projects. Combined with the precise registration and ink density controls of modern professional printers, stunning full-color artwork can be produced when CMYK channels are properly dialed in.