Know Your CMYK Basics, Or Risk A Bad Print

What Makes a Bad Print?

Computer monitors, comprised of a liquid crystal display or light emitting diodes, give off colored light known as RGB. This process essentially relies on the combination or addition of the three colors to create white light. In contrast, the use of CMYK is a subtractive process, where the addition of CMY yields a black composition.

For this reason, computer monitors have a much larger available color spectrum than printing technologies.

By physically printing ink onto a material, the perceived color is affected by the absorption and reflection of wavelengths of light, which is very different than the process of emission that computer screens utilize.

This can yield to dissatisfaction of a customer, who often claims that an image looked different on screen than it does on paper. For this reason, it is often suggested formatting an image in CMYK using a photo editing software before printing the image, this will adjust the color output to match the printer’s capabilities.

A more detailed understanding of the importance of making this adjustment can be found through the CMYK basics in the actual CMYK printing process.


The process of CMYK is essentially subtractive, that is, the addition of colors subtracts from the brightness of the white background. Halftoning, or screening, is the method by which the limited gamut of primary colors can be combined to create a dynamic spectrum.

Here, a less-than full saturation of the Cyan, Magenta, or Yellow ink is applied using an array of tiny dots. The pattern is small enough to be perceived as a solid color, but through the implementation of a number of these screens, nearly any color can be achieved.

Benefits of Using Black Ink

Using CMYK colors, three types of black are possible

  1. Composite Black: the combination of Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow Ink
  2. Flat Black: The utilization of only the black Key stroke
  3. Rich Black: The implementation of a composition black primary layer, with an additional key black layer on top.

By including black ink in your printing process, and therefore using a CMYK printer, you are able to get a depth of color otherwise impossible. This will translate to crisper, sharper images.

CMYK History

In the days of the printing press, color was achieved by associating each ink color with its own plate used to press unto the substrate. Thus, CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) where the K stands for the “key” plate, another word for Black.

The process entailed the printer laying down one color, allowing a set period for it to dry, at which point it would lay down another color. This process would continue until the project was completed.

As printing technology has changed, the digital printer has come to the forefront, allowing the printing of another format, RGB. But the CMYK standard for printing has remained, as printing in RGB will impact the resulting color profile.

Just some of the CMYK basics needed to ensure a quality print, and the important considerations necessary to translate an image from a computer screen to a large format sign, poster, or banner.