CMYK Color Model: What Is It and How Is It Used?

Illustration of the CMYK color model

As an artist or designer, color theory is one of your main resources for making important color decisions and creating ideal color combinations. Indeed, color theory is the methodology surrounding aesthetically-appealing visual art or graphic design. Likewise, understanding how color models and schemes work can be an incredible advantage whether you are creating a user-friendly webpage or an eye-catching brochure. Ultimately, by grasping and employing different color models, you can make appropriate and intentional impacts.

All color models stem from a small set of primary colors, and they each create a larger, specific range of colors (a color space). One of the most popular models is the CMYK color model. In particular, this color model is very significant for printed work. Accordingly, this means that anyone looking to print high-quality art and designs should have an excellent comprehension of CMYK color. As such, this article will address the salient questions considering what the CMYK color model is and how to use it, the differences between CMYK and RGB, advantages and disadvantages, and much more.

What Is the CMYK Color Model?

The CMYK color model stems from four initial colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black. The most intriguing aspect of CMYK is that it is a subtractive color model. Essentially, with subtractive color, pigmented ink reduces the light typically reflected on the initial white paper. As a general rule, the more pigment that is on the white paper, the less white light will reflect; in other words, the ink will subtract the white light in increasing quantities. If certain colors combine and layer, darker hues of red, green, and blue will appear. Likewise, layering all the three primaries (cyan, magenta, and yellow) will result in the darkest color combination (very dark brown or black) or filter out the lightest reflection. This occurs if a printer color ink cartridge is CMY.

That said, black is typically added to the ink cartridge in order to reduce the amount of necessary color ink and save ink costs. Moreover, as mentioned, a full saturation of the three colors will often result in a very dark, and muddy, brown. Since it does not achieve full black, the black ink will allow artists to achieve the truest black color possible in parts of their work. Additionally, black ink lets the printed images dry quickly as opposed to the slow-drying full saturation.

What Are the Differences Between CMYK and RGB Color Models?

Illustration of RGB and CMYK color models next to each other

Although there are many different color models, the two most prominent are RGB and CMYK for graphic designers and artists. The RGB model contains the primary colors red, green, and blue. Unlike the CMYK model, it is an additive color model meaning the original media is black, or the absence of light, and colors add white light in order to create increasingly vivid and pigmented colors. If red, green, and blue blend at equal intensity, the result will be a pure white. Designers use the RGB color model in artwork or designs that are meant to stay on a digital screen, such as a computer monitor or television screen, as the monitor acts as a natural light source.

RGB and CMYK are both popular color models. However, they are not interchangeable. So, an artist must be intentional about choosing the proper one for their work at hand. There are many stark differences in how RGB and CMYK work, and how they react with various mediums. In general, the main differences are as follows:

  • White and Black: Since RGB considers white the combination of all its primary colors (red, green, and blue), or the complete visual of light, its initial medium must be black. In contrast, the CMYK considers the combination of all colors (cyan, magenta, yellow) to be black, or the absence of all light. In this case, the initial background must be white.
  • Additive and Subtractive: As RGB is an additive color model, it works through adding red, green, and blue producing lighter and lighter colors. The opposite is true with CMYK, a subtractive color model, subtracting light as it employs pigmented or darker colors.
  • Digital and Printed: A digital screen emits white light, working with the three colors to produce a wide range of colors to the average eye. When the screen emits more color beams, the eye will perceive a color closer to white. When a screen is not emitting any color beams, the image is black. In this manner, RGB is the best for digital mediums. On the other hand, CMYK works best with printed materials because printers place small dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black to create the intended colors. As the printer adds more colored ink or places the dots closer together, the darker the color will appear.
Chart with differences between CMYK and RGB color models

What Is CMYK Used For?

If you wish to create a certain product, there are various processes that come into play while planning and designing that product, especially when it comes to color. You may think about how the colors will evoke a certain feeling in your viewers, or if the color combinations will be pleasing to the average consumer. Select the proper color model to input and display the truest form of the colors you have chosen. There are various scenarios where it is best to use the CMYK color model, although it is advantageous to remember the rule of thumb: CMYK color model for any output project. A few common uses are:

  • Artwork: posters, signs, prints
  • Marketing: signs, storefronts, billboards, posters, flyers, brochures, business cards, stationary, stickers, magazines, color newspapers, newsletters
  • Merchandise: branded or graphic design clothing, home decor, office stationery and pens, product packaging

Naturally, there are certain occasions where you may need a design that appears both in digital format and printed format. In these cases, graphic designers often work in RGB, even if the final piece converts to CMYK for printing.

Colorful CMYK brochure design

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of CMYK?

Although it is easy to boil CMYK color down to printed media, it is beneficial to understand the advantages and disadvantages using this color model over others. In this way, you can feel empowered as an artist and designer because you know the intent behind its employment.


  • It is the standard for most printing companies. Your chosen printer should be able to handle this type of art and file type. In the same manner, most home printers utilize CMYK.
  • Clients will typically expect work to be CMYK if they have experience in the industry.
  • It demands less color theory knowledge than other types of color models.
  • It is less expensive due to the special printing technique of halftoning.
  • A large variety of media uses CMYK.


  • The colors will not convert seamlessly from RGB format.
  • There is a limited color variety.
  • If you choose a color that is not within the scope the printer can accomplish, the color appears dull.
  • For these reasons, printed color swatches prior or during the designing process may be necessary.

How to Design With CMYK

CMYK graphic design in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black colors

If you are creating a product to be solely printed, working directly in CMYK during the digital process is an excellent course of action. However, if the product will be web-based and printed, you also have the option to create it in RGB and then convert the file to CMYK format. This will require precision and careful editing in order to ensure the color converts successfully.

Working in CMYK reduces the possibility of noticeable color changes that can occur during RGB to CMYK conversion. Additionally, it eliminates the need to print color swatches prior or during the design process to ensure the final result is consistent with intentions.

The first step to designing in CMYK is to ensure your software program accommodates that color model. Most popular software products for graphic designers and artists do support the model; accordingly, it is easy to find the right color model mode. Some software applications will allow you to choose the intent of the document, automatically switching the mode to the corresponding color model.

It’s useful to understand CMYK file formats, as selecting the proper ones will allow your art or designs to open and print properly. The accepted file types are:

  • AI: As many designers utilize Adobe Illustrator in order to create their work, AI is a standard file type.
  • EPS: For large, high-quality or incredibly detailed art, EPS is a standard vector file type.
  • PDF: If designers are uncertain about the type of file the printer would prefer, PDF is a safe option.
  • TIFF: Apart from PDF, TIFF is also a widely accepted file type.

Although it may be tempting to use alternative file formats such as JPEG, JPG, GIF, or PNG, as many people become accustomed to these file formats from the internet, these are only suitable for digital content.

How to Convert RGB Files to CMYK Files

Converting RGB files to CMYK files

In the event that you created an RGB file before realizing you needed a CMYK file, or you are a graphic designer creating primarily digital content that should also be printable, there are ways of converting the RGB file to CMYK. However, you must complete this process with caution, as it is all too easy to accidentally produce undesirable pigments, shades, and hues.

If you have worked on the file in RGB, you will need to change the mode within the software to the proper CMYK color model. Subsequently, it is likely that the colors will not be exactly similar when you convert the file to CMYK. It is important, then, to change the colors individually. Alternatively, if you wish to keep the RGB file format, print swatches to ensure the final color is exactly as desired. Although the color on the screen will not be the same, it ensures that the final result is perfect.

How to Print in CMYK

There are two incredibly popular techniques in printing design, continuous toning and halftoning. Continuous toning, or contone, generates each color as a single tone. On the other hand, halftoning or screening uses tiny colored dots that are close together. If viewed up close, with a microscope, the image will have a gradient effect. However, with the naked eye, people will perceive a continuous tone image.

With CMYK printing, halftoning is a go-to method. Without halftoning, CMYK would only be able to print seven solid colors. The main four would be cyan, magenta, yellow and black, and the subsequent three would be their combinations: green, blue, and red. However, with halftoning, it can generate a wide range of colors due to the undetectable, yet significant, spacing between the dots. Since there is a white surface between the dots, the bigger the space, the more white light reflects; consequently, the space or the size of the dots affect how dark or light the colors appear.

RGB and CMYK concept with monitor and printer

Why Not Print in RGB?

It is certainly possible to print with the RGB color model. However, this is only because the printer will utilize CMYK ink cartridges in order to generate the RGB colors. The resulting colors will not match the RGB colors precisely, unless you print color swatches during the design process in order to ensure the final color result is desirable. Although this takes more work, some designers prefer this, especially if they are working on designs that must be web-based and printed work.

In general, it is not advisable to print in RGB because the colors will not be the same as what is displayed on screen. The RGB color model has a wider array of available colors, especially when dealing with bright, vivid, or neon colors. As CMYK works by subtracting light from colors, it is very difficult to achieve bright or vibrant colors in printed work.

Moving Forward With CMYK Color

With the helpful guidance from this article, you should now feel empowered as an artist or designer to begin to tackle printed work. You have acquired an understanding of the CMYK color model, how to design and print with CMYK, and why it is often preferred over the secondarily popular color model, RGB. After practicing CMYK color in your chosen software programs, and viewing how it displays on white sheets of paper, you should feel confident in producing high-quality printed art.