Brief History of CMYK Feature Image

If you are in the creative industry you know the difference between CMYK and RGB. So design friends, you most likely know the difference. However, if you are curious about the origins of CMYK or why they use K to represent black then keep reading.

The history of CMYK?

CMYK is a color mixing system that uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black (K) inks. It is primarily used in print (business cards, posters, brochures, banners).

In 1906, the Eagle Printing Ink Company incorporated the four-color wet process inks for the first time. They discovered that these four colors can be combined to produce an almost unlimited number of richer, darker tones.

CMYK is a subtractive color model. To explain this we need a little science lesson. The sunlight bouncing around is basically white light – all the wavelengths, or colors in the spectrum at the same time. Those light wavelengths interact with the world, and our eyes interpret those interactions as color. When sunlight hits a bright green surface, the surface “absorbs” some of the red, orange and violet colors and reflects the blue, green and yellow colors that we see. So the colors are “subtracted” in a way. Another way to think about this is when you mix cyan, magenta and yellow you get black.

When printing a color picture, the image is separated into four related versions: cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Each image is made into a plate onto which the right concentration of colored ink is applied. When the four plates each print onto a page, the colors recombine and form the original image.

Fun Fact: If you want what they call a “rich black” you will use all four colors – CMYK.

Why does K stand for Black?

Ask your printer if they know what the K stands for. If they are a good printer, they will tell you the K stands for “key”. In four-color printing, cyan, magenta and yellow printing plates are carefully keyed, or aligned with the key of the black key plate. Some people say that the K comes from the last letter in “black” and was chosen because B already means blue…WRONG!

So RGB means…

Along with the digital age came RGB (red-green-blue) color. RGB color varies light, instead of pigment, to achieve the visible spectrum. So the monitor screen you are currently looking at emits light at a certain wavelength, rather than reflect existing light. If all three colors mix at the same high intensity, you get white.

When you get a proof from the printer it is very important that you understand the picture on your screen and the proof in your hand were made by mixing colors very differently.

Pantone Matching System (PMS)

So PMS is used to correctly match materials with their corresponding RGB and CMYK colors. This strives to insure that a color matches between fabrics, printed material, etc.

Knowing how color palettes work is key to any graphic design project. Here is a great infographic to explain it all.

Brief History of CMYK



Alexander's is a full-service print and fulfillment and marketing communication firm in Lindon, Utah.

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