Why Does CMYK Color Seem So Dull?

CMYK is a color mode used by printers, standing for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key. Key is almost always Black, but in some specialized printers it may be another color. However, it will always come out more dull than what appears on screen, and programs don’t like to explain why.

CMYK color appears dull because there are fewer colors possible than in RGB, which is what is shown on screen. It makes colors by mixing physical pigments together layering them one on top of another which makes them darker. Light will either be reflected or absorbed into the colors, unlike RGB which is made from light.

Printing in the wrong color mode can cause some drastic changes to the design and create subpar, disappointing results if not done correctly. Thankfully, it only takes a little bit of understanding on the difference between CMYK and RGB to get it right. Keep reading to learn more.

What is the Difference Between RGB and CMYK?

A digital device projects colors using light. These colors are able to blend in every color of the spectrum without reflecting or absorbing into other sources. This in turn is known as RGB, which stands for Red, Green, and Blue as these are the three base colors used to make every other color imaginable. This is additive, meaning that white is all colors combined and black is the lack thereof. The more colors added, the lighter and closer to white it gets.

Physical objects on the other hand are perceived differently. The color that gets seen by the eye is what was reflected rather than what was absorbed. CMYK is what is used by printers and stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key. The Key color is almost always Black, but it can also end up being another color in highly specialized machines. CMYK is subtractive color, meaning colors get darker the more they are mixed until they are completely black. White is the absence of color in this case, and any white or lighter color is just where less to no color was used.

When to Use RGB and When to Use CMYK

RGB color will not print. There is no way to get the exact colors that are possible with light in a tangible form. RGB has far more colors than CMYK ever will due to being made out of light. Because of this, RGB is best used for digital designs that are never going to see print.

CMYK on the other hand is best when printed into tangible form using either inkjet or laser printers. Inkjet will print much more vibrant, crisp colors than a laser. This is because inkjets use liquid pigments to blend and soak into the page, whereas laser uses a powder which needs baked. This leads to inkjet being far more costly in the long run, leading to most print shops using laser machines for their efficiency and capability for high-volume print. The long and short of it is that CMYK needs to be used when designing something that will be printed.

It is important to note, however, that in order to make white, glow-in-the-dark, or even neon to print, other measures have to be taken with different materials. These types of ink do not exist in the printing world. White is just the space that ink was not placed down, meaning the color of the paper is what will show up in the white spots on a design. Very bright and specialty inks are just that, specialty.

How to Make CMYK Look Brighter

The good news is that it is possible to trick the eye into thinking colors in CMYK are brighter than they really are. The best bet is to use solid saturation colors with as little blending as possible. That means Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow are going to be the brightest of the bunch. A nice rich black is achieved by mixing all of the colors, including the key color, into one. This is also why all inks will be used up unless the printer is specifically put on Greyscale.

Another option is to be very careful how and where colors are placed. Putting a bright color next to a complementary duller color will trick the eye into making it look brighter than it is.


CMYK looks dull due to the fact that it is being compared to RGB color. This is unfair as they are both made from different media. RGB is made from light being projected from a digital device, whereas CMYK is something that can be tangible and printed. Therefore it is best to use RGB when making something for the digital world and CMYK when making it for print.