CMYK vs RGB and what it means for printing stuff

Posted by Julia Hutchinson on

This is the first in a series of articles intended to give a few pointers to artists who are new to making and selling their own merch. I'm far from an expert but I have picked up a few tips and tricks along the way. Let me share what works for me.

CMYK vs RGB and what it means for printing stuff

It’s very common for digital artists to work in RGB, that coloring format designed for displaying art on a screen. But when converting your digital work into printed materials, be aware that the colors will change somewhat.

It helps to remember that RGB works by combining red, green, and blue lights to create the colors on a screen. But printing combines cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks to make color on a paper. So for example, a super bright neon green in a digital piece might print as a normal green that won’t look good since it’s not what you intended.  

The best practice is to set your files to CMYK in the first place, before you ever create the work. If you are designing a piece specifically to be made into a printed item, this is the easiest way to ensure the colors come out how you want em to.

Personally I’m so accustomed to working in RGB that I don’t actually take my own advice. Ha! So if you’re like me, here’s a tip I’ve found helpful:

Convert to CMYK before submitting to the printers

Some printers require CMYK and if you give them an RGB file, they will make you change it. Others will accept RGB. Either way you can expect the printed result to come out a little darker than what’s shown on your screen. So I recommend lightening your final piece just a little bit before giving the file to the printers. (Before lightening, save a separate version with layers flattened. And name it “lighter” or something so you don’t confuse yourself)

How much to lighten a piece?

It’s hard to say. You will get a different result from each printer depending on their equipment, the type of paper you’re printing on, and color profiles. Actually I *know* the answer has to do with color profiles but so far I’ve gotten away with not actually knowing how to use those. Hey I’m just telling truths! I’ve made it this far.

Special considerations

Be very careful with dark colors that will print even darker on the page. Purples, blues, and dark grays especially. Make those a little lighter than you think you'll need. Keep in mind that gradients might not print as smoothly and might show some banding. Usually its subtle enough that a customer might not mind, but as artists I know we are bothered by little details like this

A couple examples

In the following examples I’ve created the art in RGB. I converted the colors to CMYK and lightened them somewhat. I’ve included the final printed notebook, showing the unedited photo and after I prettied it up in my program. The prettied up “glamour shot” is what I used for my product photography that I show to customers and put on my shop.


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