Color Conversions from RGB to CMYK

I’d like to start with something of a disclaimer. Much of the work we do at Rise is in the digital realm. We strategize, design, and build primarily for the web. We will, however, have clients come to us needing a new business card designed or a logo redesigned or a mailer constructed. What all of those share in common is that they must be able to be seen, not just on a computer screen but printed out. And while we are diligent in making that translation from web to print, every once in a while the conversion is a little bumpy.

So, when that business card comes back looking red instead of magenta or dull blue instead of bright cobalt, what gives? Does the printer not know what they’re doing (assuming you use a professional printer)? Are your electronics scheming against you (sometimes I swear my computer gives me funny looks)? Are your eyes finally giving out on you?

Rest assured, none of these is likely the issue. More often than not, issues at the printer usually have to do with 2 things: the difference between the RGB palette belonging to computer screens and the CMYK palette at the printer and image resolution.

This is an early color photograph taken by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii as part of his work to document the Russian Empire. Three black-and-white photographs were taken through red, green and blue filters. The three resulting images were projected through similar filters. Combined on the projection screen, they created a full-color image. Source: Wikipedia


When it comes to color on a computer screen and color via ink on paper at the printer, we must look at two very different ways of creating the colors our eyes see.

Let’s start with the way we see color on a computer screen. Computer screens (similar to TV screens) make colors using the RGB color generation method. RGB stands for red, green, and blue, the colors of light that are combined to create the “RGB palette”. These different colors of light are added together to create images from out of darkness. This type of color creation is also called additive color mixing because light must be emitted (or added) to produce a given color.

Moving onto subtractive color mixing, we find this sort of color model used when something is printed using ink. In the printing process there are 4 ink colors that work together to create all the colors able to be printed: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and black (CMYK). Colors made this way are called subtractive because the inks absorb (or subtract) all the colors in the visible light spectrum save the one they are meant to reflect, namely, any combination of the ink values in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. To give an idea of what I mean, when yellow and cyan ink are printed onto a white sheet of paper, those inks absorb all other colors except green. All other colors are absorbed by the ink (subtracted) and green is reflected back to the human eye.


The Issue(s)

So, when you take an image created on a computer screen that uses RGB color generation and forward it to a printer that  creates color through the use of CMYK inks you’ll usually notice a color shift that is less than ideal. The reason for this, in addition to switching from light-based color to ink-based color, is that the computer and printer are having to try and translate a three-color image to a four-color image.

The other issue comes from resolution. The same image that looks bright and focused onscreen prints with an edge that can only be described as fuzzy. This is because most images meant for a computer screen fall somewhere between 72 and 96 pixels per square inch, whereas printers begin at 300 pixels (or “print dots,”in simple terms) per square inch and range up to 1,200 pixels per square inch for a high end consumer-grade printer like the HP Color LaserJet CP2025dn.

The Lackluster Color Fix: Tips & Resources

While it is next to impossible to ever fully translate the color from your screen to the printer, there are a few tips that can make life – and the colors you want to present in your printed materials – a whole lot happier.

First, when creating your images, see if the editing software you’re using will allow you to switch from RGB to CMYK. Most will, but if for some reason it won’t, you can use the handy dandy converter at for free, in a pinch.

You’ll also want to make sure you are working with an image that has a high enough resolution to successfully render your work on paper.

Between switching to the proper color generation palette and double-checking your resolution, the headache of receiving printed materials that barely resemble your original color choices should be alleviated.

What do you think, COLOURlovers? Do you have any other tips for a successful screen-to-page transfiguration?  We’ve only touched on the basics here. We haven’t even begun to look at things like paper quality, paper color, and different kinds of consumer-grade printers (be on the lookout for future posts perhaps). If there are any printers out there, we’d love to hear how you approach the RGB-to-CMYK conversion issue – or anything else you might know more about in the print-world. :)

We look forward to hearing your ideas and sharing more of ours, wherever the conversation leads us.

Rise Above,


Stephan formed Rise in 2002, when his passion for web design hit him like a laser. Today, he oversees an eight member staff and the digital marketing for some of the area’s most prestigious clients. Stephan’s experience spans nearly two decades in all areas of design and technology. He is an untiring advocate for quality and has earned a reputation for building trust and loyalty with clients who so often become repeat clients. Today, his passion is launching sites that do more than sit: they communicate, connect and continue a conversation. Stephan lives in Baldwin Park, Florida with his girlfriend, Alison, son, Ivan and dogs, Gooch and Lexi. Stephan doesn’t believe in sweating the small stuff.