What is CMYK?

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CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and key or black. These are the four ink colors used in the traditional method of printing hard copies of images called offset printing. The three colors, in addition to black, correspond roughly to the primary colors, from which colors across the visible spectrum can be mixed. CMYK is a color mixing system that relies on chemical pigments to achieve desired hues.

Before the advent of desktop inkjet or color laser printers, most images printed on paper used offset printing with CMYK colors. A color image is separated into its separate constituent parts to create four related images in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Each image is turned into a plate onto which the right concentration, or amount, of colored ink is applied. When each of the four plates is printed on one page, the colors recombine to form the original image. For example, a deep plum might have equal amounts of cyan (blue-green) and magenta (pink), with a shade of black.

Of course, CMYK cannot reproduce any color that exists in the world, but it can produce a large number. It’s impossible to combine things like a parrot feather, rose petal, or oak leaf, but the color system can get pretty close. CMYK is able to create many different colors because not only do we use inks in varying proportions to each other, but with a varying concentration, viewed as a percentage. These combinations create colors that span the spectrum in hue (what we call color) as well as in tone or intensity. It is important to note, however, that CMYK is limited by external factors, including paper qualities, ink integrity, and halftone dot size.

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Subtractive color refers to how the wavelengths of light interact with the world and how our eyes interpret these interactions as colors. Reflected sunlight is basically white light, which includes all wavelengths, or colors, in the spectrum. When sunlight hits a bright orange traffic cone, the plastic material in the cone absorbs some of the red parts of the spectrum, along with most of the green, blue, and violet. All that is reflected is a bit of red, orange and yellow which equates to a dangerous orange for our eyes. Thus, some colors are “subtracted”, leaving behind the color we see.

Now that we live in the digital age, there is a lot of talk about conversions between CMYK and RGB, or red-green-blue, colors. RGB color varies the light, rather than the pigment, to achieve the visible spectrum. We find RGB colors on monitors that actually emit light at a certain wavelength, rather than reflecting existing light. Therefore, the screen image of an RGB image will never match the image printed in CMYK. Although these color systems are related, one color cannot be directly converted to another.

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