Ink Color vs. Monitor Color

Laying down ink on paper vs. what you see on your monitor = always different. There are considerations that are necessary to mitigate risk of reprint. I’m going to briefly show you how each color theory “mixes color” or rather… how they “work together” in this post, then tell you why it matters.

Monitor color:

“RGB” or Red / Green / Blue.  This set of numbers refers to amount of colored light emitting from your monitor screen. Quite literally, 3 tiny colored diodes, or micro-mini-type-lights live inside each little pixel across your monitor screen. The values go from 0 (no light) to 255 (full-on intensity). Basically, if all three light diodes are full-on (255) for a given PIXEL – the pixel is white, if they are dark (0), the pixel’s black. Pretty cool. It’s a bit harder to “mix” these colors and get exactly what you envision. It’s more of a point-and-click-type-thing, in a lot of programs.


Ink on paper:

“CMYK” or Cyan / Magenta / Yellow / blacK.  This set of numbers refers to the colors of ink that lay down on a sheet of paper, as a percentage. The logic is sorta conversely true from RGB, right, 0 in value, 0 ink in all of those 4 colors = white! See how 100% Magenta and 100% yellow makes RED? And blue and yellow make green. This is logic I can get behind.


Ink on paper can also be a “Spot color” or “Pantone Color” or “PMS” which stands for ‘Pantone Matching System’. Standard color books come with standard formulas for printers. Your colors can be right on, and you have the power to hold the printer accountable for results. You say “I want a 165C” they should be able to deliver. These don’t deviate in tone nearly as much as a CMYK build. This is the advantage of spot colors to the discerning eye.

Why it matters & other considerations:

  • You can achieve black with just one color in CMYK. If you add another color, it DOES affect the outcome. i.e. 100% yellow and 100% black will result in a dark gross greenish black. Therefore this song is patently false, even if it’s fun. It has always bothered me.
  • Microsoft (Publisher, Word, Excel, etc.) handles colors as RGB. It builds a black in RGB and that translates to a REALLY rich black when printed. Problems with heavy coverage areas arise, when the papers are stacked after print. The ink, if it’s heavy, can “offset” or transfer onto the backs of the sheet on top. Printers then would naturally back off the color, to keep this from happening, and it could result is faded colors, or unexpected results.
  • If the printer doesn’t convert your RGB files into CMYK, and then print it… the resulting color is bad. No good. Bad.
  • If the conversion messes up your colors, text or text-flow, they may or may not catch it. I’ve seen 10,000 sheets of magnets with ¥ symbols instead of a bullet points. Even so, they will blame you, the client, if your artwork was not supplied to their specifications.
  • I’ve seen large format printers use RGB files with amazing results. It has to do with their process, and the brightness of the color. Ask them about it.
  • CMYK cannot achieve bright oranges. If your logo is bright orange, you should always have it printed with a SPOT color. This is color that comes strait out of a can, premixed, and lays down a solid dot, rather than mixing dots to achieve a certain color.
    Illustration of the difference (seriously!):
  • CMYK cannot achieve bright purples either, nor RGB blue, nor the retina-killing brightness of an RGB Red. It’s the nature of the beast. If you want the brightest possible purple, go with 60% cyan and 100% magenta.
  • The brightest colors are the simplest builds. If you add Yellow to a purple mix, it quickly changes the tone; muddies the waters.
  • There is a process available at larger print houses with 6 colors. This process mix CAN achieve brighter colors. Ask about it. I’m not sure how widely used they are yet…  A lot of print houses do have a standard 6-color press that can run full color + your specific SPOT color. So, unless you have 3 or more colors that you can’t deviate from, most places can and will be happy to accommodate. Keep in mind that CMYK is relatively inexpensive and accessible now.
  • Screen Printing is a totally different beast. These need to be designed in solid colors. A type of mixing inks with dots can be done on tees, but requires additional setup. It takes Photoshop work and some magical pixilation filters. It’s do-able for an artist, but not all graphic artist are familiar. Ask your printer. They don’t all do a process screen print.

Printers and designers are different breeds. Now you know a little of our secret magic… it could save you headache later. Unlike magicians, we’ll share if you wanna know.

Let me know if this kind of information is relevant to you in the comments below.
How we can help with other issues on print, large format or graphic design?


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