Digital & Print Colors

RGB, CMYK, and Spot Colors

Understanding the Difference
Between RGB, CMYK, and Spot Colors

visual representation of color blending in rgb, cmyk and spot color


RGB is the process of mixing (R) red, (G) green and, (B) blue light rays together to create yellow, cyan, and magenta. When you combine all three colors in equal parts, you create white light. To get black using RGB formulas, you remove the red, green, and blue light rays. So, for a practical explanation, think of your color-changing LED lights. If you select white – all three colors are “on” in the same amount. Black – well, the bulb would be off, so none of the colors are “on.” When you want a color, you have to mix them. Pink and purple comes from the red and blue lights being turned “on” at varying amounts. Green and red lights combine to create shades of yellow and orange, and blue and green produce those teals and aqua colors. Because the RGB model makes new colors by adding them together, this is an additive color model. RGB colors use light rays so, these formulas are for digital applications, anything that will appear on a monitor, tablet, or phone.


CMYK is the process of utilizing (C) cyan, (M) magenta, (Y) yellow, and (K) black ink to create full-color images. Because there are four colors utilized, this is referred to as 4-color process printing. When you have a CMYK job, a printer breaks apart your design/image into each of the colors. You may have heard of this as color separation. The printer will create a plate for each color. These plates print sequentially to produce a full-color image out of millions of tiny dots. These dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and back are offset from each other to make a vast spectrum of colors. When you mix CMYK colors, cyan and magenta produce blues and purples; magenta and yellow create reds and oranges; yellow and cyan result in green and teal hues. Mixing all cyan, magenta, and yellow does not produce black. It ends up creating a muddy brown color. For this reason, black is the fourth color allowing for more diverse and vibrant colors.

Spot Colors

The printing process uses spot colors when color accuracy is essential. There are a few producers of spot colors. Pantone® is probably the most well know and dominates the print industry. But there are also Coloro, HKS, RAL, and NCS. A spot color is a pre-determined mix of colors that will always produce the same result. Spot colors are not the result of mixing colors in four-color process printing. They require their own plates to be created and added to the print job. Because of this, you will find full-color print jobs that have one or more spot colors, referred to as 5,6,7+ color jobs. Adding spot colors to your project will ensure the exact color match but will increase your printing prices.

So what Color Should I use for my Project?

The choice of which color process you use depends on the project. If you are working on a website, app, or other digital display, you will want to use RGB colors. When you create assets for print, you’ll use CMYK or a spot color if the color has to be exact, such as for your logo. If price is an issue and spot colors don’t fit your budget check the system you use. They may have the color conversion, allowing you to print your signature color with four color processed printing. However, you need to be aware that there is no guarantee that the color will come out correctly. When using CMYK for a spot color, you are dependent on the printer, its calibration, and whether it supports any color matching. So, be sure to have a sample printed for approval before committing the whole print job.

For more information about developing a color palette and cross matching (RGB, CMYK & Spot Colors) check out our post on How To Achieve a Perfect Color Palette.  We have included information on how to find the RGB, CMYK, or Hexidecimal codes for your spot color.

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