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What is the best CMYK for black?

What is the best CMYK for black?

When printing in CMYK, choosing the right combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black (key) is crucial for achieving a deep, rich black color. This is an important consideration in professional printing, where black text and graphics must be dark and crisp on the page. In this article, we’ll explore the best CMYK mixes for black and how to optimize your blacks for any print project.

Understanding CMYK

CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key (black). It is a subtractive color model used in color printing, as opposed to RGB which is an additive model used for screen display.

In CMYK, colors are produced by starting with a white background and then subtracting color using combinations of CMY inks. Black (K) ink is added for greater density and to produce true blacks.

When mixing CMYK colors, each component is represented by a percentage value ranging from 0-100%. Combining cyan, magenta and yellow at 100% would theoretically result in black. However, due to impurities in ink and the printing process, this “rich black” still appears washed out and brownish. This is why black ink is necessary to create true blacks.

The most common CMYK combination used for black text and graphics is C:0 M:0 Y:0 K:100. While this single black ink achieves reasonable density, even richer blacks can be obtained by adding cyan and/or magenta.

Challenges with Black

There are a few challenges that come up when trying to achieve deep blacks in CMYK printing:

– Ink Limitations – CMYK inks have physical limitations in terms of density and color gamut. The darkest possible black is limited by the density of the black ink.

– Ink Spread – Black ink tends to spread slightly on the paper, resulting in uneven edges around black objects.

– Metamerism – The way colors are perceived can change under different lighting conditions. A CMYK black that looks rich in daylight may look washed out under indoor lighting.

– Press Differences – The same CMYK blacks may look different based on the printing press, paper stock, calibration and other mechanical factors.

– Cost – Adding more ink to achieve richer blacks increases cost. There are also limits on the total ink that can be applied to prevent issues with drying and smudging.

Best Practices for CMYK Blacks

Here are some recommendations for optimizing blacks when designing for CMYK printing:

  • Use single color black for large, solid black areas like backgrounds. The K:100 black requires less ink and avoids registration issues.
  • Add cyan and magenta to black text and graphics. Starting with 60% cyan and 40% magenta adds density while minimizing visible ink spread.
  • Increase cyan and magenta for large headline text, logos and other critical branding elements. Up to 80% cyan and 60% magenta creates an intense, dark black.
  • Use rich blacks sparingly to avoid high ink costs. Use them primarily for small text and graphics.
  • For grey shades, add up to 40% black to CMY. Rely more on cyan and magenta than black for light greys.
  • Preview CMYK blacks under different lighting conditions to test for metamerism issues.
  • Consult with your print provider on recommended CMYK mixes for their specific equipment.

Following these best practices will help you achieve deep, rich blacks in your printed materials. Let’s look at some specific CMYK combinations recommended for different black elements.

CMYK Values for Black Text

For black text, a rich black starting point is:

  • Cyan: 60%
  • Magenta: 40%
  • Yellow: 0%
  • Black: 100%

This mix ensures black text has a deep density without visible ink spread. The addition of cyan and magenta to the black creates a darker black than K:100 alone.

For larger text such as headlines, you can increase the cyan and magenta percentages. Many designers use:

  • Cyan: 80%
  • Magenta: 60%
  • Yellow: 0%
  • Black: 100%

This creates an intense, saturated black that pops on the page. Use this for your most important design elements like logos and titles.

You can also add a 20% yellow to both mixes to neutralize the cyan/magenta tinting. This makes the black appear cooler and less muddy.

CMYK for Black Graphics

For graphics like logos and icons, start with a CMYK mix similar to text:

  • Cyan: 60%
  • Magenta: 40%
  • Yellow: 0%
  • Black: 100%

You can increase cyan and magenta to 80% and 60% respectively for bolder graphics like company logos.

However, also consider using single color K:100 black for simpler graphics with large solid areas. Registration issues are minimized without mixing inks.

CMYK for Black Backgrounds

For black backgrounds, use single color black instead of a rich black mix:

  • Cyan: 0%
  • Magenta: 0%
  • Yellow: 0%
  • Black: 100%

This avoids the cost and challenges of high ink coverage across large black areas. The solid K:100 black also provides sufficient density for backgrounds.

Consider a rich black mix only for smaller screen prints where a deeper black is desired. Even then, limit the cyan and magenta to 30% to minimize ink costs.

Best CMYK Blacks for Grey Shades

For grey shades, good starting points are:

Grey Level CMYK Mix
Dark Grey C:40 M:30 Y:0 K:40
Medium Grey C:0 M:0 Y:0 K:60
Light Grey C:0 M:0 Y:0 K:20

Rely more on high cyan/magenta percentages than black to create light greys. At lighter shades, the black ink dominates and makes the grey appear muddy.

Up to 40% black can be added to richer dark greys while maintaining density. This allows for smoother grey gradients by relying more on all four colors.

Tips for Evaluating CMYK Blacks

It can take some trial and error to find the right CMYK mix for your project. Here are some tips:

  • Print color swatches showing different CMYK blacks to directly compare on paper.
  • Check swatches under different lighting conditions to test for metamerism problems.
  • Use a densitometer to measure and compare the density of blacks.
  • Examine prints under magnification to check for visible ink spread.
  • Ask your printer for recommendations based on their equipment and workflow.

Evaluating your blacks this way allows you to hone in on the optimal mix before going to press.


Achieving deep, rich blacks in CMYK printing requires balancing density against cost and printability. While single color K:100 blacks have their place, adding cyan and magenta to black text and graphics creates blacks with intensified depth and saturation. Use the CMYK combinations recommended here as a starting point, and take steps to evaluate and refine your blacks prior to printing. With some careful testing beforehand, you can ensure your blacks meet your expectations and deliver professional, high-quality results.