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Colour Spaces, The Many Shades of Colours

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It has probably happened to you when printing a photo or something you’ve just designed, like your business card, that you’ve realized the colors don’t quite look like they do on the screen.

There are some basic reasons behind this which have nothing to do with your printer or monitor being broken. While I won’t go into detail on how color correction works, I will explain the theory behind it so that you can understand it.

Color Spaces

The first concept you need to understand when trying to get print and screen colors to match is ‘ color space’.

Our eye can see a certain number of colours which is way more than what the screen can show and conventional printers can produce. That means that certain shades of colours can be seen by the human eye, however, neither screen nor printer can reproduce them.

So when you pick that beautiful red colour for your card and then print it to find that it’s a lot darker than what you saw on screen, it’s most probably due to the fact that this shade cannot be printed in the first place.

A color space is a mathematical model where you assign a range of numbers (or combination thereof) to colors to identify each color across several programs. Let’s take a step back to see how it works…

RGB and CMYK

RGB stands for Red, Green and Blue while CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. These are two general colour spaces respectively indicating the colours created by the mix of light and those created by the mix of pigments. There are some others but we don’t need to know about them right now.

With RGB, the more light you use, the lighter the colour becomes, so if you point a red, green and blue light onto a spot, the result will be white. This is called additive colour. RGB is used by your monitor and has a wider range of colours than CMYK.

With CMYK, by stacking up all four colours the result will be black. Theoretically you can reach black by just mixing cyan, magenta and yellow but in practice it tends to be brownish so you might want to add some of the black, too. The combination of all four pigments creates a denser black, which is… well… blacker and is called ‘rich black’.

In order to define a certain color within one of these color spaces you state how much of these primary colors you use to create it. For example, if you wanted a certain violet shade, you’d mix 50% cyan, 50% magenta, 0% yellow and 0% black which becomes C 50 M50 Y0 K0. Because there are many shades of violet, it is important that you indicate these percentages so you get it right.

How to Make Sure Your Colours Look Right

Many free programs don’t support CMYK and this can put you at disadvantage. However, if you need colour precision in a printing environment and you have a program that supports CMYK, it’s a good idea to try and work with it in the first place.

For commercial printing you might need to take some extra steps, but these basics will make sure you get less surprises in your day-to-day printing.

Other tips to make sure colors are right are:

  1. Sometimes compatible cartridges perform differently from original cartridges – if you are concerned about color accuracy you might have to stick to the printer’s original brand.
  2. The paper you print on makes a lot of difference: if the shade isn’t quite neutral (white) your colors will take it on.
  3. Calibrate your monitor – there are a lot of tutorials explaining how to do it.

So what about your prints, do they show their true colors?

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