What is CMYK? | Learning Hub | Fineline Print & Web

Our Aim:

To provide the most comprehensive Print & Design Learning Centre available in the UK

Dedicated to making Your Print More Profitable by...
  • Helping you get the job done faster and more efficiently
  • With less downtime and reduced waste
  • Making your business more effetive
  • Cutting through the jargon which drives us all mad


There’s nothing the print trade loves more than jargon. 

Maybe it’s because it bestows authority on the user or … maybe it hides the fact that they know far less about the subject than they’d care to admit!

Well, we’re going to embark on a bit of jargon busting and lift the lid on CMYK or the four Process Colours.

Ok, so what exactly is CMYK?

In short, it stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black which are the four process colours used in commercial print.

I’ve been working in print for nearly thirty years and it never ceases to amaze me that just about any colour picture we see in printed media will have been made up from these four pigments.

There’s a bit of a debate about how the letter K came to be used for Black but it may go back to the early days of ffull-colourprinting when colours where laid down one stage at a time. 

Modern presses print the colours in one pass – one after the other in quick succession. Going back to the old days, colours would have been printed one pass at a time and allowed to dry before the next and so one. The Black or Key plate would have been run first and all the others aligned to it as the respective plates were set up when their turn came.


So far so good. But how are these four process colours mixed to create a full colour image?

Well, here comes the clever bit because the way it is done it to break the image down in to tiny dots. And each of those dots is one particular colour. That’s right, each dot is either Yellow, Magenta, Cyan or Black.

And they are so small and arranged so closely together that we see them as one complete image. But look a little closer with a magnifying glass and you’ll see how the magic happens. 

In a way, the colour image you are looking at is an optical illusion. Not one homogenous image but countless thousands of tiny dots with just the right concentration of the four colours to make up the image we see.


If you are designing your own document, here’s a couple of design secrets which will save you loads of hassle down the line.


Design Secret No. 1

Whilst colour pictures are made up by the arrangement of coloured dots – solid objects like type aren’t. Or at least they shouldn’t be. But let me explain.

Whilst the coloured dots within an image are placed with extraordinary precision, sometimes the registration can shift ever so slightly. When this happens, the dots for one colour (and sometimes two) can shift – like this.


Imagine if you’ve created a piece of type in a CMYK colour and this happens. Precisely!

Ideally, you should set type as Black. However, if you really have to have lettering in a colour, you might just get away with it on very large type. Say, over 36points. But even then, there’s a risk - you have been warned!


Design Secret No. 2

If you’ve got a special “house colour” for a logo for example, it’s not always possible to get an exact match with a mix of CMYK colours. If you’re trying to match a specific colour and don’t have a Pantone Matching System chart to check it against it’s worth dropping your printer a line and they should be able to help.

One of the most tricky colours to match is Orange and here it is as a CMYK mix and … as a solid colour. Not good – is it?

3 Design Secret No. 3

If you are sending your document out to a commercial printer don’t forget to check that the colour settings are set as CMYK. Some design packages will use another colourway called RGB which is fully explained in Guide No. 4.

In short, RGB colours are used on images we see on screen and are not compatible with commercial print processes.

As a subject, colour is huge, and I hope we’ve covered just enough to make you feel comfortable with the subject and help you get started.

But my guess is that you’ll never look at another colour image in the same way again!

I think we’ve covered this segment of colour for now and I don’t want to drown you in more technical stuff. But … if you’re interested, Guide No.4 talks about the colours we see on screen like your smart phone or tablet, for example. 

Digital media uses a colour way called RGB and Guide No. 4 gives you some very interesting insights in to the differences between these two colour-systems.


I hope this quick skim through has been helpful and thanks for dropping in,


But before you go …


I’m on a mission this year to help You make Your Print more Profitable.

If you’ve found his article helpful and you’d like to receive regular insights and answers to industry secrets just pop your name and email in here and we’ll look forward to sharing with you.

It’s what we’re here for!


Copyright © Fineline Print and Web 2018

It really doesn’t matter whether you’ve got a project still on the drawing board or ready to go - if you’d like help to brainstorm some ideas and … thoughts on how to use print more effectively, please just pop a name and phone number (or email address if that’s more convenient) in to the form alongside and we’ll get right back to you.  

It’s what we’re here for.

Please share your top tips with me

Let us guide you to achieve profitable printing, call Alec and the team on 01824 705 800