Are You Using the Correct Colour Space?

You may be familiar with the terms CMYK or RGB when it comes to colour spaces, but do you know the difference and why it matters when it comes to your artwork? Our worlds are becoming more and more digital every day, but artists are still creating physical prints of their artwork. Have you ever tried to have some of your artwork printed only to find that the colours are WAY off from what they should be? I’m going to give you a quick breakdown of what you need to know about colour spaces and ways you can avoid unexpected colour shifts in your printed art.

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Let’s start with the basics. RBG stands for Red, Green and Blue which are the colours that make up the light spectrum. Images that we see on screens such as a television or our smart photos are made up of pixels. In a digital image, a numerical value is assigned for each of the three colours in a pixel. These images use the physics of light waves and how our eyes perceive colour.

When you look at an image on a screen it’s in the RGB colour space by default.

In short: RGB = Digital

CMYK by contrast stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. This model is built around how ink mixes together to produce different colours, similar to paint. Commercial printing for magazines and books and even high-end art prints use this method. Black (represented by a K because B usually stands for Blue) is added to the mix because it is difficult to achieve a deep black with the mix of the other three ink colours.

The majority of printed materials have been printed using a combination of CMYK inks, including your home desktop printer. Not all CMYK printers will print the same, however, which we will discuss more later.

High-end commercial printers have the ability to print using Pantone or PMS colours in addition to CMYK. Pantones are specifically mixed colours that are placed on the printing press in addition to the CMYK inks. Pantone inks make printing costs more expensive and are typically used for brands where consistency and getting the exact right colour match are needed. Think of Tiffany & Co. robin’s egg blue or Coca-Cola red. This means that regardless of the process of how something is printed the colour will be the same every time.

In Short: CMYK = Print

Why it Matters

You can order almost anything online now including prints of your artwork. It’s important that you find out what colour space the online printer prefers to print in if they don’t clearly state it in the area where you are uploading your artwork. Many will accept files as you see them on your screen (RGB colour space). They have printers that are specially calibrated to their screen to be able to print in this space much like your home printer. Home desktop printers, however, unless calibrated to your screen exactly will still have some colour shifts.

Depending on how your screen displays the colour you may see a small or huge change between various colours in your prints. A slight change may not matter in some cases but a large change could completely change how the artwork presents itself.

I would highly recommend requesting a print proof or ordering a single print before you order large batches of prints from any online printer. This includes Print-on-Demand sites like Society6 and Redbubble. It’s also a great idea to order paper sample kits from non-print on-demand sites if they have them available.

The other thing to consider when getting prints made is that even between paper types your colours can appear slightly different. Typically this will be in how bright or vibrant they appear, but regardless it’s important to know this ahead of time before you spend a lot of money. This is important whether you decide to make prints yourself using your desktop printer or through a professional.

Calibration and Printing

Uploading a CMYK image to your website will often automatically convert to RGB, but trying to print an image in the RGB colour space using CMYK inks will often result in inaccurate colours compared to what you see on screen. Blues and greens tend to be the biggest offenders when it comes to colour shifting. You may decide you really want to choose a vibrant cyan for your branding only to find it prints darker and duller when it comes back from the printer.

As I mentioned earlier, your home printer is a bit of an exception because it is programmed to a degree to what you are seeing on your screen. This gets tricky as well because everyone’s computer screen or monitor also shows colours a bit differently.

This is a big reason, for example, why I recommend filling out colour charts for your coloured pencils with the actual colours. While some brands like Derwent and Faber-Castell offer free pre-filled charts with their colour offerings, they often don’t print accurately for consumers. This makes them a less accurate or helpful tool when it comes to picking colours for your artwork.

An example of how colour can shift dramatically between what you see on screen, how your individual printer will print it and what it actually looks like in real life. This example isn’t as extreme as some others can be.

If you have uploaded an image to an online printer that looks great on your screen, but it still comes back wrong. Depending on how the printer’s screen displays the image and how the actual printer is calibrated it may print exactly correctly for them according to what they are seeing.

When you go with a reputable local printer they will typically work with you before large batches of prints are made to make sure your colours are correct. They may also offer a service where they scan your artwork for you to further control the way the image is captured for printing. This process can be expensive however and isn’t an option for many artists.

One of my favourite online printers even has templates you can download for various Adobe design programs already formatted in the correct colour space they need it in to print. Check to see if the online printer you are using offers this feature and always use their templates if they are available. This helps reduce the margin for error significantly. Many print companies will not refund your order just because of a mistake you made by not adhering to their printing specifications.

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Switching Colour Spaces

Luckily, programs like Adobe Photoshop make switching colour spaces super easy. It literally is as easy as clicking a selection in a drop-down menu. That said, while some images can make the leap between colour spaces rather seamlessly, others will require colour editing to get them back to looking the way that they should.

I use Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom for all of my colour edits, but there are many similar programs out there that are free or lower cost. Regardless of what you use, it’s important to understand why the colour spaces matter and when to use which.

Ready for More?

As I mentioned earlier, this blog post is just scratching the surface of what you need to know when it comes to printing and colour spaces. If you want more in-depth information on everything I’ve covered here including diagrams, video tutorials, and troubleshooting tips, I’m creating a Level 1 course called Understanding Colour Spaces for Print & Web.


Barb Sotiropoulos

Barb Sotiropoulos

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

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Hey, I'm Barb!

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

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