3 Very Different Color Models: RYB, RGB, and CMYK

Three different types of color models: RYB, RGB, and CMYK

What exactly are the RYB, RGB, and CMYK color models, and how are they different? We’ll be taking a closer look at each of these color models and find out how they are used in the world of graphic design and art.

First, consider why some colors work so well together in design, and others immediately clash. The answer is fundamental to color usage in modern technology and comes with an understanding of color models being used today.

As kids, we learned rudimentary versions of color theory in grade school, but few received full instruction in the concepts unless they spent a lot of time in art class. For the rest of us growing up, we just learned over time that certain colors could be used as a group, and others should never be put side by side.

Those lessons don’t stick very well over time, especially as we get older, unless we work in color every day. Ergo, the demands of the professional designer and color model choices.

Color Models are Built on the Foundation of Color Theory

Color theory chart on computer screen

Color theory is the study of color families and relationships. It is important to design because, unlike art in general, design is always used to convey meaning, message, appearance, and intentional display. So, the colors chosen mean more than just a particular shade that looks nice in a picture or painting.

For example, take a look at any major movie and slow down the film speed. Look closely at the cinematic scenes. If you are paying attention to the details, you will see that the active movie set designs will many times be monochrome, i.e., a collection of shades of the same color. Reds, oranges, and yellows will be used for heat, passion, and excitement. Blues will represent cold and isolation, a lack of warmth. Grays and black will often emphasize the loss of life, depression, and so on.

Color design is incredibly powerful and provides a huge motivator for human behavior. So, understanding how color models work in design is bread and butter to producing powerful images with intentional messaging. However, what happens when the tools used to create design produce something different than what the designer sees on the screen? This is the challenge of color models applied with technology.

Design Goes Sideways With Tech

A rainbow of colors coming out of a modern pc computer monitor

Now let’s translate the above to a computer. If you pick a shade of blue for a design, then it should be the same blue on a computer and the same blue when printed, right? Not quite. The common problem that happens is that computers and their screens have a limited number of colors that they can process. This fact is not an accident; instead, it was by design. On the other hand, the human eye, for example, can differentiate thousands of different shades and unique differences in one color alone. Unfortunately, the computer screen tends to be more limited. Depending on which color model is used in a given piece of equipment, it will affect what is seen on the screen and, ultimately, the output as well.

Use a thermal camera as an example of the above. A rudimentary, basic thermal camera will oftentimes be limited in display range and monochromatic. The screen technology in the bargain models will be basic, so the display instead shows temperature changes with different levels of intensity of the same color, just varying shades. The higher-end thermal cameras, however, have far better screens with a much higher pixel level and capability. Instead, these high-tech units display temperatures with a rainbow of colors to show heat variations from one target point to the next, based on where the camera is pointed. Obviously, the better color spectrum produces better detail for the viewer. The same logic applies to color models in design work. A better model produces better detail and results on the screen.

CMYK, RGB, and RYB – What in the World?

The color models most applied to print, design, and artwork include the big three, CMYK, RGB, and RYB. And then, there is the oddball variation known as sRGB (which is a color space). However, it was the first one, RYB, that set the direction for the others.

Getting Started: RYB

Full size RYB color model with red, yellow, and blue primaries

RYB, as simple as it turns out to be, is just an acronym for red, yellow, and blue. This trifecta represents the three primary colors of which, when combined with each other to differing levels, create what we classify as other colors. The RYB model is not new; it’s been around for a very long time, well before the creation of the first computers and definitely before the first color screen. In fact, historians generally credit Jacob Christoph Le Blon with the first practical application of RYB in design printing. There were characters before, dating back to the 1500s, but it was Le Blon who created a consistent use of RYB in painting.

Today, RYB is hardly used with the latest technology. The fact is, the blending of three primary colors is extremely basic and limited. Computers and their technology with design software are capable of far more, and more advanced color models make more sense in actual use. They produce better colors with far more vibrancy as well as technical choices available.

The above doesn’t mean that RYB isn’t powerful; it is. In terms of counting all the possibilities, one can create 16,777,216 different shades using RYB variations, basically 256 versions of each of the three primary colors.

Modernizing Color: RGB

Full size RGB color model with red, green, and blue primaries

In the 1960s, design and color theorists started to develop a new approach towards color use and color function. Similar to the RYB approach, RGB was developed to represent a portfolio of colors created by a similar blending of three primary colors: red, green, and blue.

RGB was originally applied as far back as the 1860s with photography, but the three-plate blending process came into its own at the beginning of the 20th century. RGB borrowed from this approach when television began to be developed in the 1940s, and it became a standard for color display on digital equipment from the TV forward. The same began to be used on all types of electronic devices using color displays.

That, in turn, laid the groundwork for computer display by the 1970s and 1980s. All of the first desktop computer manufacturers, like Apple, Commodore, Texas Instruments, IBM, and similar utilized RGB for color differentiation. This was cemented when the Video Graphics Array, more commonly known as VGA, appeared and became the dominant standard for computer displays. The same continued until Super VGA arrived in the early 1990s, which was touted to be the closest thing digitally to true color. No surprise, an entire generation of designers and color design work was trained, developed, and finessed on an RGB palette.

The Printing Standard Doing Its Own Thing: CMYK

Full size CMYK color model with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black primaries

CMYK is the printer’s favorite color model. The model name is, no surprise, also named after specific colors: cyan, magenta, and yellow. The last initial stands for the key color, which is black. Similar to RYB, different mixtures and intensities of the four colors could produce just about any color one needed for design printing with a powerful effect. Using a method known as half-toning, which applied less ink in detail but greater intensity, printers could develop pages and posters that were vibrant and eye-catching. The process caught on quickly, and CMYK became a printer’s standard for color output as early as the 1850s.

In the 1950s, CMYK was “modernized” by Pantone with the Pantone Color Matching System. This process expanded CMYK to 14 specific pigments, and those, in turn, produced 1,114 colors with various levels of mixing.

Today, CMYK remains an industry print color standard. There are various experimental approaches, but for anything professional, the design files to be printed have to be converted to CMYK format for production. That pretty much includes anything that is going to be converted to paper format in a high-quality production, ranging from magazines to posters to detailed brochures, placards, and more.

What designers will find out as they go deeper and deeper into color technology is that, regardless of how some color systems are, there is no automatic “crosswalk” from RGB or RYB over to the printer’s standard of CMYK. Instead, what has to be done is a process of referencing. As a color is used in the original format, it is referenced through a table with the “corresponding” color in the CMYK spectrum. There is a bit of a fudge factor involved as there is not a perfect match between the two color systems. Known as ICC profiles, various references bridge the gap and help the conversion from a computer color file to a printer machine.

And Then, There is the Doppelganger: sRGB

Illustration comparing Adobe RGB vs sRGB vs CMYK color spaces

Let’s be clear, sRGB is not a color model, it’s a color space based on the RGB color model. Anyone dealing with colors in design needs to be aware of it, where it came from, and why it still matters today.

sRGB stands for “standard” RGB. By the mid-1990s, computers were commonplace in the form of desktop units, and design was quickly being produced in digital form. However, folks started realizing that if every computer make came up with its own version of colors, things would look very different, working from one computer model to the next. So, the big players like Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and others struck an agreement on what kind of an RGB approach should be used. This, in turn, created standard RGB or sRGB. However, sRGB was somewhat limited.

While it worked as a common playing field for computers, sRGB was nowhere close to what the eye could differentiate, and it also was lacking versus CMYK, the color spectrum used for printing. The difference became notable when people realized that some colors available in CMYK, when printing from a photo image, were not being produced or even available in sRGB sent to a CMYK printer channel. That, in effect, doomed sRGB from any kind of long-term use in professional design. The image above illustrates the limitations of the sRGB color space compared to CMYK and Adobe RGB (more on that below).

Comparison of Color Models: The Differences Between RYB, RGB, and CMYK

Comparison-wise, here’s how the three color models shape up against each other:

Type of Color ModelSubtractiveAdditiveSubtractive
Use & ApplicationArt and applied designDigital displaysPrinting
Primary ResourcePaint, pigmentLightInk
File SizesN/ASmallLarge
Primary Colors UsedRed, yellow, blueRed, green, blueCyan, magenta, yellow, key
Primaries CombinedMake dark brownMake whiteMake black

Image Work and Design Created the Market for Something Better

Colorful graphic design on large format printing machine

Solving the problem of the computer’s inability to translate color properly to the printer side with CMYK, Adobe RGB became a dominant color modification by the late 1990s. The Adobe company released the coding for Adobe RGB, tied in with its design and image software products to attract customers and dominate the field for imaging and color design on computers. They did an amazing job because, for the first time, there was an RGB variant that carried over color accurately to CMYK printing.

While there were variations created after Adobe RGB that were even more powerful, such as Kodak’s ProPhoto RGB in 2003, the standard was eventually set for Adobe RGB to be the color tool that was most used by industry, professional graphic artists, photographers, designers and illustrators, and similar going forward into the 2000s. That direction has been entrenched as Adobe continued to build out its product family, covering the spectrum of all types of image production, and integrating Adobe RGB into all of them.

The above said, Adobe RGB has to be turned on by most tech users. Standard color settings in computers without modification still use sRGB as that’s what the tech industry agreed upon and hasn’t changed since. Only when a user specifically seeks out advanced screens and turns on the additional features does the power of Adobe RGB then come into play. So, designers are regularly trained not just to be aware of these technological differences but to use them actively when producing any kind of design work. The alternative ends up with a limited palette of colors that becomes very obvious on the print side.

Practical Applications Versus Ideal Conditions

Graphic designers choosing colors on pc and tablet

So, given all the above, designers have some choices to make. If producing a lot of work at a regular pace and high detail doesn’t matter near as much as working with high consumption of design and imagery, then sRGB makes more sense to use. It keeps design production simple and efficient, the images created on the computer match what is on the Internet and reverse as well as other computers, the audience gets the basic concept and visuals quickly, and fast workflow meets frequent deadlines.

However, if your design work needs to go to discerning clients who want high-quality design work that is rich, highly detailed, and nuanced with professionalism that stands out, designers need to consider using Adobe RGB instead. This will not only produce a richer spectrum of color and output, but it will also closely match the CMYK spectrum used by printers, which matters a lot when the product has to be turned into a physical representation outside the digital world.

Adobe RGB meets the rigid standards of clients’ high requirements for accurate color. It also works well with printer machines that produce the same on paper, and Adobe RGB provides a wider color choice without doubling the size of data files (a big problem for high production designers constantly gobbling up storage with work files). Keep in mind that any design work commonly shared online has to be converted down again to sRGB format for everyone to be able to see the colors of the design as they were intended.