The Ultimate Guide: CMYK or RGB for Printing

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If you are creating digital products to sell, a very key aspect that you need to keep in mind is the color mode you are using. Haven’t heard of CMYK or RGB? Then, it’s time that you get to know what each entails and what this means for your products. 

The type of product you are creating and what it will be used for is what will determine whether you use CMYK and RGB. So if you haven’t decided yet on a specific design, or haven’t thought yet about how it may be used, then it is time to stop and think about this. 

Once you know exactly what you are creating and how your customer will use it, then it’s time for you to figure out which color mode fits best.

Here we will cover everything you need to know about CMYK and RGB and which is best for your design!

cmyk or rgb for printing

What is the Difference Between CMYK and RGB?   

What exactly is the difference between RGB and CMYK? These are both modes of mixing color in graphic design. So basically, RGB is best for creating digital work, while CYMK is used more for print projects. 

But here are some more details about these two modes and what you should know. 

What is RGB?

RGB, or red, green and blue, is a color mode for digital images. This is the best mode to use if your design is supposed to be displayed on some type of screen. A light source helps to mix these colors and varies their intensity. 

This is also known as additive mixing, which means that the colors begin as black and then once the red, green and blue light are added it will create the perfect pigment. And when these colored lights mix together at the same intensity, this creates pure white.

Designers have the ability to control things like the saturation, vibrancy, and shading by modifying one of these three colors. Since it is created digitally, the designer can manipulate the light and how it appears. 

Here are a few things that RGB is best for creating: 

  • Branding (logos, ads)
  • Social media graphics (post graphics, profile images)
  • Web & app design (icons, buttons, graphics)
  • Any other visual content (videos, infographics)

If you are creating something specifically to be used digitally, like one of the examples above, then RGB is the best option. 

What is CMYK?

CMYK, or Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key/Black, is the color mode used for printed materials. A printing machine creates images by combining these colors to different degrees with physical ink, which is called subtractive mixing. 

All colors start as blank white, and each layer of ink reduces the brightness which creates the color that is needed. And, when all colors are mixed together, this creates pure black. This is all the opposite of how RGB works. 

Here are some things that are best to use CYMK for:

  • Branding (business cards, stationary, signs)
  • Merchandise (t-shirts, hats, pens, mugs)
  • Advertising (billboards, flyers, posters, brochures)
  • Other materials (menus, product packaging)

These types of materials that you will only use physically, are best made with CYMK so that they have the right type of color.

What Programs Use CMYK and RGB?

Most graphic design software programs give you the option to work in either RGB or CMYK, and these are called “color spaces.” Here are some programs that will allow you to work in CMYK: 

  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • Microsoft Publisher
  • Adobe InDesign
  • Adobe Pagemaker
  • Corel Draw
  • QuarkXpress

These are programs that are not able to work in CMYK, but can be converted. 

  • Microsoft Word
  • Microsoft Excel
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements
  • Microsoft Powerpoint
  • Adobe Photoshop LE

Does Canva use RGB or CMYK?

So what about Canva?

Canva is a very popular way of creating products digitally and it’s important to know which color space it uses for creating specific types of designs. 

Canva only uses the RGB color space, which is great if you are creating digital items. This is what Canva was created for originally, so that is what it specializes in. 

Want to create products you can print on Canva? Here is how you can get around it: use CMYK colors in your design. You can find CMYK color pickers online to help you with this. 

Once you choose the CYMK colors and build your color palette, you can create your print design by either creating it normally and making copies to edit the colors. Or you can directly use CMYK colors while creating your print designs. 

If having specific colors is important for your design, to avoid a color shift, you will need to make sure you are use CMYK colors for your print. This would be especially important for art prints.

How to Get the Best Print Color in Photoshop

So, how do you get the best print color? The answer to this would be to switch from RGB to CMYK.

To do this in Photoshop you will go to File and select New. In the New Document, you can simply switch the color mode to CMYK. 

If you're wanting to convert an image from RGB to CMYK, then you can simply open up the image in Photoshop and navigate to Image, then Mode, then CMYK. 

CMYK guarantees a more reliable result from what you see on screen versus the final print.

When you convert RGB to CMYK to print on a four-color printer, there usually is a shift in color. These shifts are typically minor, but you can still see an issue, especially if your design is color-sensitive. This would be the same if you were to upload a CMYK design to use digitally.

It won’t work for you to be able to use the RGB color system for printed items like t-shirts and mugs, since they can’t emit light, and only can reflect light. So the additive process of RGB will not work. 

You have to remember that it is impossible to print bright red, bright green, or bright blue colors with the CMYK color process. So, if you use the RGB color system to create your designs to have a bright red, when you print it with CMYK it will be duller. Bright colors will lose their intensity and have a dull look. 

The solution to this would be to set your program image settings to CMYK, so that the colors you see on-screen are closer to the actual print. 

Can you get bright print colors with CMYK?

Unfortunately, it isn’t always a possibility to produce the bright and more saturated colors that you see on your retina screen onto tangible products. You may have designed something beautiful, bright, and colorful in RGB and want to convert this to CMYK, but there’s a good chance that it will be much dimmer. 

The brightest colors that you can get by using CMYK are solids, which means 100% of cyan, magenta, and yellow will appear the most colorful. They still will not appear as bright as they are on screen, since RGB shows more shades of colors. 

A backlit screen can create a more brilliant color than any pigment on canvas or a material can match. Also, some materials can be superior to others when it comes to color brightness. But if you want bright colors for your product, solid colors are the way to go!

Do I Need to Convert RBG to CMYK for Printing?

As you’ve already learned, the answer is definitely yes!

RGB colors may look great when you have them on your computer screen, but to have them look great on printed products, it needs to be converted to CMYK. This means any colors and imported images and files need to be in CMYK format. 

If you are supplying artwork in the original format, it is best to convert colors to CMYK before supplying artwork and files, that way you have a better idea of what the colors will look like when they are printed and avoid any problems with shifts in color that might occur.

How to Convert RGB to CMYK Without Losing Color 

It is important to start a project in the correct format to avoid losing color, but it’s still possible to convert between RGB and CMYK if you need to.

You do have to expect that the colors may look different, either darker or lighter. If you are a designer, this is something that you would have to explain if you are providing a design to someone. In addition to changing the document’s color space, you may actually need to change the colors themselves to find a similar look to what you had before. 

Here’s how to convert between RGB and CMYK on a few popular platforms.

In Adobe Photoshop

To change on Photoshop, you will select Edit and Convert to Profile. Use the Destination Space dropdown menu to change the color mode. There are different libraries of RGB and CMYK, so you will see multiple options. But usually the first options are what will work best for you. 

If your image is not already flattened, check the Flatten Image to Preserve Appearance box as your colors may not come out as well with multiple layers with blending and transparency between them. Once you are ready, you can hit okay and see the color mode information change at the top of your document. 

In Adobe Illustrator

To change the color mode for your Illustrator file, select all objects in your document. Navigate to Edit > Edit Colors and select your desired color space.

In Adobe InDesign

In InDesign you will navigate to File, then Adobe PDF Presets, then select [Press Quality]. Select Output on the left side and use the Destination dropdown menu to convert the color mode. 

This method can be helpful in a pinch, but if you are working with a lot of different images, it is best to change the image’s color mode through their native programs (like Photoshop or Illustrator) assuming you have linked them.

RGB or CMYK for Digital Art

When it comes to creating digitally, CMYK and RGB can both be used to create.

When you are creating digital work to keep digital, then RGB is the best option. CMYK is best if you will be printing your design. 

Why might your digital art not look right? It may be because you are using too much contrast, only using soft brushes, using too much saturation, and using too many custom brushes and texture tools. 

So, should you draw in CMYK? It is not necessarily required for all types of printing, and if you want to stay in RGB, you can do so. But if you are sending it to the printer, you can switch it over to the CMYK format. 

Can you use CMYK for digital art? The issue with this is that the colors in CMYK cannot be as vibrant and bright as they are in RGB. Digital printing is dominated by CMYK, even with improvements made to RGB. But the two are very different and it’s important to take into account how your digital art will be used.

Prepping File for Wall Art

So what is your plan for your digital designs? Are they used solely for digital uses, or will they be printed to use as home decor? This is a very key detail to keep in mind when choosing between CMYK and RGB. 

This is especially the case if you plan to use your design to sell as wall art. These would be products that your customers will be printing to hang in their homes. They need to be able to see the design on their phones or computers, and see the same design, without muted colors, when they print it. 

Gallery wall art is a very popular niche on Etsy right now. But if you aren’t aware of the color spaces, it could have a bad outcome. You want your customers to receive exactly what they are paying for. So you need to be sure that your file is in CMYK format, instead of RGB. 

Final Thoughts

By now, you should have a good idea in mind of which color mode would be best for the type of product that you are creating and wanting to sell. This will help ensure that you are creating the best type of product for your customers and ensuring they are happy with the end product!

Learn how to make printable products to sell with our E-Printables Course!

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Katrina Waardenburg

Katrina Waardenburg

Katrina is an Etsy seller and content writer who was formerly a teacher. In her own words, "Being a mom of two girls, I work hard at growing this business and helping others grow as well so I can provide for my little family.”
Katrina Waardenburg

Katrina Waardenburg

Katrina is an Etsy seller and content writer who was formerly a teacher. In her own words, "Being a mom of two girls, I work hard at growing this business and helping others grow as well so I can provide for my little family.”

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