Does GIMP Support CMYK Color?

GIMP is a photomanipulation software that has taken up the impossible task of competing against Adobe’s golden child Photoshop. It can do just about everything Photoshop can do with the added bonus of being completely free to use and edit to suit needs. However, that doesn’t mean that it is a perfect software from the get-go.

GIMP does not natively support CMYK color, only RGB. However, as an open source program, there have been plugins and workarounds designed to change this.

Read more about whether or not GIMP supports CMYK color and what it might be useful for below!

What is the Difference Between RGB and CMYK?

There are two major color modes when it comes to design. One is RGB and one is CMYK. GIMP only natively supports RGB as the point of the program was for digital photo manipulation rather than for print. Both modes have different ways of blending colors to make more colors, while also having differing resolutions.

Here is a table to show the differences between RGB and CMYK:

Color ModeAdditiveSubtractive
Colors UsedRed, Green, BlueCyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (Black)
Color VarietyMany vibrant colorsFewer, sharper colors
Intended UseDigitalPrint

RGB is a color mode that uses blended light added together to make more colors, whereas CMYK uses colors stacked on top of each other to make darker colors. If designing for print, having a file type in CMYK is beneficial as to not lose color quality when transferring over to printed works.

Plugins to Allow GIMP to Use CMYK

Since GIMP is open source software, anyone can go in and make changes to the program. They are also free to share these edits, usually in the form of plugins that other users can install themselves. GIMP has been around for long enough that there are options for just about anything someone could need, and that includes being able to swap color modes to CMYK.

Here are a few plugins that allow GIMP to use CMYK instead of just RGB:

  • CMYK for GIMP
  • Adobe ICC Profiles
  • Separate+

These are all simple to install and use plugins that give the compatibility to GIMP for CMYK color modes. Some allow a button to change, while others require the file to be saved a specific way in order to convert it.

Ways to Work Around the Inability to Use CMYK Natively

It can be a pain to use GIMP to make CMYK files, but there are workarounds to get it done if push comes to shove. While sometimes simply exporting as a PDF or TIFF can be enough to let printers figure it out, that’s not always going to cut it without a loss of quality.

Here are a few ways to work around the fact GIMP cannot natively use CMYK:

  • Open in another program with the ability to convert from RGB to CMYK
  • Install a Plugin
  • Use an online converter
  • Use a printer with the ability to convert RGB files to CMYK while printing
  • Make monochrome designs and not worry about color loss

Conversion from RGB to CMYK almost always results in color quality loss. This is due to the fact that these color modes are so different in how they make colors that it doesn’t translate well in the data. Therefore, it’s always best to design entirely in CMYK rather than in RGB if it’s intended for print.

Why Would You Need to Convert to CMYK?

RGB is made up of light and has a much wider range of colors that it can select from as a result, whereas CMYK is made from stacking tangible substances on top of one another. A computer will always be in RGB, but having the mode set to CMYK helps prevent loss of color quality when the printer reads the data to know what and how to print.

However, CMYK is the only thing that a printer can do. There might be other combinations of ink in specialty printers, but the fact of the matter is that a printer is producing a tangible substance. The data it reads in order to do so has to be compatible. If printing is the end goal, a file needs to be in CMYK or risk even further color differentiation than expected.

Can GIMP Make CMYK Look Brighter?

On screen colors are always going to look a little brighter than they will on print. A screen shows images based on a collection of RGB colors blended together in a massive spectrum. If put into a CMYK color mode, it will look much duller than RGB usually does in attempt to more accurately show what the final product will be. From there, it depends on the resolution of the screen.

Using a computer with high resolution and graphical capabilities, such as most Macs, will have a more accurate depiction of the color regardless of the color mode. From there, using CMYK colors in full saturation will have the highest likelihood of being brighter. Additionally, placing a bright color next to a duller complementary color will trick the eye into making it seem brighter than it actually is.

So while GIMP has the ability to adjust colors and to have plugins installed so it can operate in CMYK, it isn’t the only thing that is working to make those colors look the way that they do. Knowing how to trick the eye, use proper color modes, and having a high resolution monitor with a good graphics card will go a long way in making CMYK color look brighter.


GIMP is the main competitor for Adobe Photoshop, which is a huge achievement considering it is open source freeware. It can do nearly everything Adobe’s golden child can do, with the added benefit of being able to be modified to the user’s needs and preferences. Unfortunately, it falls flat in its capability to use CMYK. It cannot do so natively, but there have been plugins and workarounds figured out to force it to convert anyway.