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CMYK vs RGB: Battle for Colour

In school, we were taught that there are three primary colours: red, yellow, and blue. However, when you enter the land of graphic design, we learn that the RYB colour model is very limited and the number of available options is much less than what we were led to believe.

Not a problem for your school project, but for your average graphic designer it is a lot more important.

Graphic design has two basic colour palettes:

  • RGB – Red, Green and Blue
  • CMYK – Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (or black)

The 50 billion dollar question is, What’s the Difference?

CMYK vs RGB: Battle for Colour

Additive vs. subtractive

One of the most important things to understand about RBG and CMYK is their differences.

  • RGB is an additive colour palette, so when you add the colours together you will get white.
  • CMYK is a subtractive colour pallet; where white only exists when the colours are absent.

Digital displays create over 16 million colours using RGB pixels at varying intensities. While printed material uses subtractive colours, CMYK dots can create over 16 thousand colours.


“Additive colours are created with light; the more light you add, the lighter and brighter the colour gets.”

Adaptive colour palettes like RGB adds colours together and the more light you add, the brighter the colour gets. RGB works the same way as human vision. We have three types of cone photoreceptors in our eyes: ones for red, green, and blue light waves. The brain then takes the light from those three receptors and interprets it as the millions of colours we see.

RGB colour was first used by James Clerk Maxwell in 1861 when he shone a light through three photos with a red, green and blue filter to project a full-colour photo.


“Subtractive colour systems like CMYK are standard in printed material.”

CMYK can cause some issues with accurate colour reproduction since digital displays can create many more colours than printed inks.

Print uses the subtractive model where cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks block parts of a white background by subtracting light from the original surface.

Why CMYK is the better choice?

Designers work in an RGB colour space with not many variations between different displays and devices. While print media converts RGB files to CMYK, and this can create colours that appear significantly more muted that the RGB colour you see on your screen.

To prevent this difference always make sure that you set your file’s colour space to CMYK when working with Print Media. This is not a 100% match but a much better approximation than designing for print in RGB.

Understanding the basic differences between CMYK and RGB as a designer will help prevent those surprises in your final product whether that be a digital or print design.

What about RYB?

As for the RYB colour model we were taught in school… We still use that for mixing paint, so it’s a good idea to keep that in your back pocket the next time you want to paint your house.