Exploring Color in Print and Digital Media: It’s Complicated

Simplifying colorBy: Chris Weaver

Most of us probably remember the color wheel from our elementary school art classes. The primary colors are yellow, red and blue, and by mixing them, we can get secondary colors like green, orange and purple. Depending on the percentages mixed, any number of color variations are possible. Ah the good ol’ days of the color wheel and our Crayolas.

In the worlds of print and web design, color gets a little more complicated. Now we are dealing with two different technologies; very similar to the color wheel, full-color, printed materials are almost always using a much more detailed version of the color wheel called “CMYK.” In a nutshell, this involves mixing percentages of blue (C), red (M), yellow (Y), and black (K) to make a wide variety of colors. It’s what is most commonly known as “process” printing.

The physics of how light bounces off printed materials and eventually enters our eyes is where this gets complicated. The human eye and visible light are much more detailed than ink on paper. There are more colors in nature than can be seen by our eyes or effectively reproduced using printing technology.

Digital devices – televisions, computer monitors, smart phones and tablets – all use the RGB method of building color. This is through the broadcast of red (R), green (G), and blue (B) light. The variations in density and mix of this RGB light is what gives us different colors on our computer screens. Depending on the intensity of the light, the colors can look more vibrant or dull.

It’s all about visual light. The sun is giving us all colors at once and it appears as white light. Computer monitors are basically a REALLY simplified light output device. Turn the red, green and blue outputs up to the max and you will have white. Ease the color mixes back and you will start to see different colors. This is different from CMYK in that we start with white and work our way to adding everything to get black.

Adding to the issue is that every device is calibrated a little differently. Colors will appear differently from one device to another and depending on the light in the viewing area. A color photo on a tablet in a sunny park will appear differently than on a monitor in a windowless room.

The design and printing industry goes to great lengths to set up their equipment to accurately reproduce color. Technology can help us bridge this gap. Printed colors and visual colors don’t really exist within the same neighborhood, but they can play nice together when encouraged. The trick is to be able to see a color on screen, using the RGB process and know that it will look the same when printed using CMYK. And to answer the obvious question, “Why can’t we just print with RGB inks?” Well, the red, green and blue inks do not mix effectively on paper and reflect light in a way that the CMYK inks do. They lack the brightness and luminousness of their on-screen pixel counterparts. Even when sending an RGB photo to your desktop printer, the software between the computer and your color printer converts the image information to CMYK.

There is so much more that could be discussed here, in fact whole textbooks and seminars exist to simply introduce people to the issue of color. We’re happy to answer any questions on the subject!

Always let your true colors shine through. Good luck.

Chris Weaver
Chris Weaver

Senior Art Director