What Happens if You Print RGB Instead of CMYK?

It happens to everyone at least once. That design or photograph looks amazing on screen, but it comes out dull, muted, and muddied when it prints. This is because it was set to RGB instead of CMYK when it was sent to the printer.

Printing in RGB instead of CMYK will result in muted and muddy colors that will not compare to the design on screen.

It helps to always remember to do a test print before doing a full run to make sure things are the way they should be. Keep reading to learn more about the differences between RGB and CMYK, and why one is better for print than the other.

What are the Key Differences Between RGB and CMYK?

There are a few ways that RGB is different from CMYK which might help make the understanding a little clearer. For starters, RGB is made out of light where CMYK is physical. Here are some other ways they are different:

ColorsRed, Green, BlueCyan, Magenta, Yellow, Key (Black)
Color VarietyMany/VibrantFewer/Sharper
Color ModeAdditiveSubtractive

It’s easiest to remember that in RGB, black is the absence of color whereas in CMYK it is all of the colors. Imagine RGB like a prism of white light and CMYK like a couple buckets of paint and it helps make a little more sense as to how they interact with each other.

Why Do Printers Use CMYK Instead of RGB?

RGB is made due to how light works, reflects, and is seen by the eye. It’s an additive color, meaning that black is the absence of color and white is all of the colors combined. CMYK on the other hand is subtractive color and is not made of light. It instead absorbs or reflects light just like any other tangible object. White is the absence of color whereas black is all of the colors in one.

Since printers are making something tangible, they have to use CMYK. If the color can’t quite be made with the physical ink, it’s going to try and do something as close as possible. However, it can only reach about half of what RGB can do which can lead to RGB designs becoming muddied in transition. It’s just a limitation of the system.

Should Designs Be Made in CMYK or RGB?

It depends on if the design is going to be used for print or web. If it is going to be for web, it definitely should be designed start to finish in RGB as that is going to help the colors be at their very best.

If the plan is to print the design, it needs to be at least converted to CMYK before printing. How it starts though is up to personal preference, though just doing the whole thing in CMYK can help prevent disappointment and loss of quality during conversion.

Do Professionals Print in RGB or CMYK?

All printing is done in CMYK, though some high-end inkjet models have space for additional colors including more saturated red, green, and blue. Inkjet can typically get more vibrant in color as it’s a translucent dye that is mixed and layered on, whereas laser printers use a dry powder that is essentially baked on in a way that makes it look like the color instead of four individual ones.

If the printing company accepts RGB formatted files, they have every image go through their devices’ native raster image process (RIP). This allows a file that was made in RGB to be converted to CMYK immediately through the printer itself. Since RGB is made by light, the brightest hues and tints will not transfer over to the final product even with devices such as this.

What are the Brightest Colors CMYK Can Print?

CMYK will never be as bright as the digital screen, however not diluting the colors will make it so that those colors are the brightest of the bunch. 100% Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow print the most vibrantly. Black can actually be made richer by mixing all of the colors with the black ink, which is why even a greyscale print might use up the colors if it wasn’t set to print with only the black.

Unfortunately, that is about as far as it can go. While some brighter mixes can happen especially with an inkjet printer, it can never be nearly as bright as what RGB can do. Achieving neon or glow-in-the dark has to come from different sources and materials, not a printer.

How to Know if the File is in RGB or CMYK?

Most programs have a mode option that can be checked in their menus. Some of them also state up on the very top bar of the program which mode it is in next to the file name. If using a template such as those on PlaceIt, selecting something for Web will be in RGB and selecting for Print will be in CMYK. Additionally, there is nothing wrong with asking for help from friends or even the printer themselves.

If all else fails, run a test print to make sure that it is going to be produced to satisfaction. That will help solve issues before they become a problem and save a whole lot of headaches and disappointment down the line.

Why are CMYK colors so Dull?

Due to the subtractive process of CMYK, colors are mixed together. For inkjet printers, these are translucent liquid dyes which then have to dry on the page, whereas laser printers are a dry powder that has to be heated in order to be set. This combining of colors in turn makes it so that light is removed or absorbed instead of reflected back like in RGB.

In the end, this means that there are fewer colors that the eye is actually going to be able to register as light isn’t being entirely reflected back onto the retinas. In short, only about half of the colors RGB can produce are able to be converted to CMYK.


CMYK is how all printers make their colors and RGB is how all monitors make theirs. The former uses a liquid in an inkjet printer to mix the colors together, which will end up darkening them as it makes more and more mixes. Laser printers layer on more and more colors which will make things darker as well. RGB on the other hand gets brighter the more it adds to itself due to being made entirely of light. Simply put, they are just two separate processes for separate uses. CMYK for print and RGB for digital.