Why don't print colours match what I see on screen | Learning Hub | Fineline Print & Web

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In this short presentation, I’d like to talk about colour and specifically about why the colours you see on screen don’t always look the same on the printed page.

The reason this is such an important question is that I’ve seen too many people who’ve lovingly designed something themselves - spending hours getting the colours just where they want them on screen only be horror-struck when they see the results transferred to the printed page.

But why should this be?

After all, colour is colour, isn’t it? 

Surely, everything should look the same?

Unfortunately, it isn’t and it doesn’t – so let’s find out why.


But before I do, I would like to point out that there are many, many sites out there which cover the subject of colour and colour matching in much greater detail than I’m going to do here

The last thing we want to do is to drown you in a lot of highly technical detail which isn’t going to help you a great deal.

What I’m hoping we’ll be able to do here is to give you a brief insight into the fascinating subject of colour and … equip you with enough knowledge and insight to allow you to get your job done without any mishaps.


Just to be clear, however, we are not going to talk about metallic colours like Gold or Silver or … fluorescent colours either. That’s a whole different subject and I’ll cover that another day.

1:  RGB colour

2: CMYK colour


The digital world, and by that, I mean stuff we view on screen - like our phones, tablets, TVs or laptops - uses RGB or Red, Green and Blue light to create the images displayed on them.

Print can’t use light, so it has to use pigments to portray colour. But rather than just three colours, which digital media uses, print goes one further and uses four. 

These four colours are known as Cyan; Magenta; Yellow and Black or CMYK for short. The K in this instance refers to Black and stands for Key.

All that Key means in this context is that Black is the Key Colour and all the other colours are arranged in relation to it.


The Technical Stuff

Ok, so we’ve looked very superficially at the difference between the two colourways but why do they behave so differently?

Well, it’s all down to light.

The RGB methods create different colours by adding different proportions of the three primary colours to create the desired effect. When all three are combined in equal proportions you get White.

Black, by the way, is created when there is zero percent of any of the three primary colours present.

If you fancy a play, there’s a neat little widget available on the web which lets you put in different percentages of Red, Green and Blue and shows you what they look like:

Create your own RGB colour here.

Conversely, the CMYK method works quite differently.

If we added Cyan, Magenta and Yellow we’d just get Black. Not a very deep Black but still Black

Create your CMYK colour here.

Whilst the images made up from either system look very real it’s important to note that they do not represent all the colours in the visible spectrum. Just part of it.

And this is where it gets really interesting because RGB and CMYK colours occupy slightly different ranges within the visible spectrum.


First of all, let’s take a look at RGB and the space that this colourway occupies.



And now, let’s look at the space CMYK occupies.


And finally, let’s look at how they overlap.


Do you see how RGB provides a much larger range of colours than CMYK?

If the RGB colour you can see on screen is outside the CMYK range then it suddenly becomes very clear why RGB images looking so different when they’re printed – because they have to be converted to the nearest colour within the CMYK space.

If those lovely rich screen colours lie outside the CMYK space you can see why they simply can’t be printed on a commercial printing press. 

Reds and Blues are often the most problematic and to give you a real-life example, take look at our own Union Jack.

So, there we have it. 

There’s a lot to take in and apologies, once again, for skimming lightly over a very technical subject.

But I hope I’ve helped raise your awareness about what happens when screen colours are mistakenly used for print and … how to avoid the pitfalls.

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.

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