RGB vs. CMYK, When And Why We Use Color Settings

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Earlier this week I came across a post on Reddit regarding printing digital art onto t-shirts. The post was created by a user who had color issues with a design they had printed. Once printed, the colors looked completely washed out compared to the original digital copy. 

This happened due to the wrong color model being used during the design process.

You may have heard about RGB and CMYK color models, and may have even tried to use them, but do you know what those abbreviations mean? What is a color model and what does it do?

Understanding RGB and CMYK color models are essential for graphic designers and illustrators. 

But before we get started we need to understand how we see colors.

How We See Color

First of all, what is color? Many people believe that everything we see around us has color, but that isn’t true. In reality, color doesn’t exist in objects.

Color is what we see when light interacts with an object. 

Let’s begin with the sun. Our sun emits white light which is actually a combination of multiple visible light frequencies. Each frequency on their own appears to us as a certain color, but when combined together, we see white.  

When light hits an object it is either absorbed or reflected into our eyes. We see color based on what frequencies are absorbed and reflected from an object.

For example, when you see a blue object, the object is absorbing all the frequencies except for blue. We see a black object because it is absorbing all of the frequencies, and a white object is reflecting all the color frequencies to our eye.

When we look at an image on our screen light is being projected to our eyes. On print, we are seeing the light that is reflecting off of our canvas. 

Now you can begin to understand why we need different color models between digital and print.

What Is A Color Model? 

Remember in grade school when your teacher gave you 3 tubes of paint? You got to sit there with a big smile on your face, getting messy and watched the magic happen as you mixed your different colors together.

A Color model is just that. A method of creating a wide range of colors from a set of primary colors.

Although it isn’t as simple as grade school because the color model we use is dependant on whether our design is intended for screen or press.

There are two different color models; Additive and Subtractive. 

So, why do we need different color models? Providing design services for both digital and print, we often come across these questions from our Clients. 

Why do the same colors look different between digital and print?

The answer to this question is in the differences in color models. Since a computer screen is emitting light, and a printed design is reflecting light we require two different color models.

The color of the computer screen changes from black (no color emitted) to white (all colors emitted). 

On paper, the absence of color corresponds to white and the mixing of the maximum number of colors is black.

Therefore, before you print a design, the image must be converted from an additive model of RGB colors into a subtractive CMYK model.

What Is RGB?


RGB is the additive color model that combines Red, Blue, and Green to produce a wide range of colors.

The light being emitted from your computer screen combines the primary colors red, green, and blue to give us any color we desire. 

When creating designs that are meant to be viewed on a screen, RGB color settings should be used.

What Is CMYK?


CMYK is a subtractive color model that uses Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key/Black to produce a wide range of colors.

A printer uses a combination of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key/Black to give us the colors we want to see.

To get the desired color that we want to see we need to lay the pigment on a sheet of paper that will reflect and absorb the proper light frequencies.

CMYK settings should be used if your design will be sent for print.

RGB vs CMYK, What’s The Difference?

The simple answer? RGB uses the additive model to create colors while CMYK uses the subtractive model. The primary colors that are being mixed to give you your desired color are different between the two models.

What does this mean for you?

If you’re creating digital art or graphic designs that will be viewed on a screen, use RGB mode.

If you’re creating digital art or graphic design for print, use CMYK mode.

What if you are creating a design for both print and digital? We’ll luckily for us, converting between the two color settings in software such as Illustrator, Photoshop and similar programs are fairly simple. Familiarize yourself with your software, converting between the two settings usually requires a few clicks in the settings menu.


As a designer, you will need to be aware of which color model you are using when creating a design. Understanding the science behind how we see color will help you why we use different color settings.

The most important things to remember are; 


  • Uses an additive color model
  • Combines Red, Green, and Blue light emitted from a screen to give us the colors we want
  • Used for digital


  • Uses a subtractive color model
  • Combines Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, and Black pigment on print which will reflect and absorb light waves to give us the colors we want
  • Used for print

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