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Understanding the Differences Between RGB and CMYK colours

When it comes to representing colours in various mediums, two primary colour models dominate the scene: RGB and CMYK. Understanding the fundamental differences between these colour models is essential for designers, photographers and anyone involved in the digital and print realms.

Understanding the Differences Between RGB and CMYK colours

RGB Colours: Radiance in the Digital Realm

RGB stands for Red, Green, Blue – the three primary colours used in the RGB colour model. In this additive colour model, the combination of red, green and blue light at full intensity creates white, while the absence of light results in black. RGB is primarily used in digital devices such as computer screens, smartphones and television screens.

Characteristics of RGB:

  1. Additive Nature: RGB colours are created by adding different intensities of red, green and blue light. Combining the three at full intensity results in pure white.
  2. Wide Colour Gamut: The RGB colour model produces a wide range of bright and vibrant colours, making it ideal for displaying images and videos with rich visuals.
  3. Web and Digital Content: RGB is the go-to colour model for anything displayed on screens, including web design, digital graphics, social media images and videos.

CMYK Colours: Pigments on Paper

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black) – the four primary colours used in the CMYK colour model. In this subtractive colour model, coloured inks or pigments are combined to absorb light and produce various colours. CMYK is primarily used in the print industry, as it replicates the process of printing colours on paper.

Characteristics of CMYK:

  1. Subtractive Nature: CMYK colours are created by subtracting specific colours from white light to produce the desired hues. Combining all four colours results in black.
  2. Limited Colour Range: The CMYK colour model has a more limited colour gamut compared to RGB, which means some bright and vibrant RGB colours may not reproduce accurately in print.
  3. Printed Materials: CMYK is the standard colour model for producing printed materials, including brochures, flyers, business cards and magazines.

The RGB-CMYK Bridge:

When transitioning from the digital to the print world, understanding the RGB-CMYK conversion is crucial. Since RGB colours have a wider colour gamut than CMYK, some colour variation is inevitable when translating digital designs to printed materials. It is essential to adjust colours and ensure accurate representation before sending files to the printer.

The differences between RGB and CMYK colours lie at the core of our digital and print experiences. While RGB excels in creating vibrant visuals on digital screens, CMYK takes centre stage in the world of print, replicating colours through pigments on paper. Understanding the characteristics and applications of these colour models empowers designers and creatives to make informed choices, ensuring their visual creations shine whether on screens or in print.

Written by Emma Hackett Design

Emma is a freelance graphic & web designer, based in South Australia. Emma began freelancing in 2015 and has since had the pleasure of creating or enhancing visual communications for many new and existing businesses.


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