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RGB vs. CMYK vs. PMS – How To Get the Best Colors for Your Print

Updated: Oct 27, 2023

Color is a major factor in printing, but not all colors are created equal. How can you be sure that your images will print consistently each time you send in an order? The last thing you want is to send your design to print, then realize the final product colors did not turn out exactly how you imagined.

To keep colors consistent when printing it is important to understand the basics of color profiles. A color profile defines a color within a specific space, such as a computer program or printer. There are three types of color profiles: RGB, CMYK, and PMS (also known as Spot Color).


RGB – The Digital Profile

RGB (Red, Green, Blue) is an "additive" color source that is created by blending light itself rather than using ink. The more light you add, the more color you can see! RGB is used solely for digital design. It represents the same colored lights used within digital screens: red, green, and blue. When you combine all three RGB colors, white is produced, conversely without any light, there is no color, making black. Because of this, RGB colors cannot be printed, as paper cannot produce light on its own.

So, how would RGB colors affect your print? If your images or source materials were originally designed for digital/screen purposes, then chances are that they were created with RGB colors. When an RGB image gets printed, the colors often become mistranslated since most printers use the four-color process known as CMYK to create images. Some colors that display fine on a screen cannot be printed. This is most noticeable in select shades of brown, green, purple, and very bright saturated colors, so it is imperative to convert your images to CMYK before printing.


CMYK – The Printed Profile

Also known as four color process, CMYK is the most common color profile for printing due to its affordability and efficiency. Most home and office printers use the CMYK color profile. CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (Black). The term "Key" is from the days of the physical printing press when a "key plate" was used to align the other colors. Like RGB, various colors are created by overlapping these four base colors, though this time, they are made with ink on a traditionally white background.

CMYK is a "subtractive" color profile because it is the absence of color that produces white. To create a full-color image, colors are broken down into thousands of CMYK ink dots that overlap in varying densities and blend together. The fewer dots applied, the lighter the tone will be as the white of the paper will show through. Conversely, printing on a stock that is not white will affect the color of the overall print, as CMYK cannot produce white ink. Because the colors are mixed during the printing process, there can be slight inconsistencies in the color throughout a print run. Even switching to a different printer can slightly affect the color of a print. When color consistency is a must, PMS is the way to go.


PMS – Spot Color

Spot color refers to a color or ink that has been specifically mixed and calibrated to a color-matching system. It is comparable to picking out a paint swatch, once the desired swatch is selected, the paint is precisely mixed for consistent results. PMS stands for Pantone Matching System. Pantone is a globally used color-matching system and is the primary system used in the print and design industries.

More than 3,000 Pantone colors cover the entire color spectrum. Each swatch is assigned a unique number and name to help identify various colors. The Pantone system also allows for unique color types, such as metallics and fluorescents, something that RGB nor CMYK can not achieve. What makes PMS colors ideal for print is consistency. The color will always look the same across every print run. If color accuracy is essential for your image, such as a company logo, the use of PMS colors is highly recommended.


Here at Trebnick Systems, our flexographic presses primarily use PMS colors and can utilize up to 16 ink colors! If your job requires more colors, CMYK printing may be the better option to help cut down on plate costs. If you have any questions or need help setting up your artwork, contact us! Our on-site Graphics Team will ensure you get the best quality print every single time!


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