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The CMYK Color Wheel

CMYK Color Wheel
CMYK Color Wheel
Photoshop and Illustrator CS4CMYK stands for Cyan-Magenta-Yellow and Key color (black). These are the primary colors for the translucent ink used in offset lithography (printing). When you subtract all four CMYK colors, you get the white of the paper (no color). That’s why CMYK is called “subtractive color”. After the jump, learn more!

Click on the image below to view a much larger version.

CMYK Color Wheel
CMYK Color Wheel

The color wheel above shows three colors in addition to the primary colors. In between each pair of primaries is a secondary color: a mix of two primaries. Cyan and magenta make blue. Magenta and yellow make red. Yellow and cyan make green.

I’ve shown a formula for each color. The numbers are the respective percentages of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and black (K) in each hue. These are the numbers you would put in as the CMYK values in the Color Picker.

 

Mixing CMYK Color

When you add cyan, magenta, and yellow together, you get black – in theory. In reality, it’s a murky soft black, so printing a rich black requires the addition of black ink, referred to as the Key color. Mixing these four colors together in various ways gives us almost all the colors in the rainbow.

CMYK Venn Diagram
CMYK Venn Diagram

 

Out of Gamut

Many colors which are visible to the naked eye are not reproducible on a printing press with CMYK. These colors are called “out of gamut”. We can get pretty close, though. Photoshop and Illustrator have commands you can use that bring your colors back into gamut, so that they print a predictable color.

In the Color Picker, look for an icon of a little triangle, with an exclamation point inside, next to the current color: Out of Gamut Icon If you see that icon, your chosen color will not print in CMYK. Click on the triangle to choose the closest in-gamut color.

CMYK Out of Gamut
CMYK Out of Gamut

 

Four-Color Process Printing

In four-color offset lithography (also known as process printing), a full-color image is separated into four plates. These plates look somewhat like photo negatives after they are etched. The black areas of the plate hold no ink. Conversely, the lighter the etched area on a plate, the more ink it will hold. There is one plate each for cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

CMYK Plates and Inks
CMYK Plates and Inks

Plates printed for process printing such as these are not printed with solid ink*. They are actually comprised of patterns of dots we cannot distinguish with the naked eye. Try looking at a magazine ad through a magnifying lens some time. It’ll look something like this:

Dot Pattern
Dot Pattern

Each of the four plates is printed in a grid of dots. So that the dots are not overlaid exactly on top of each other, the grid for each plate is turned at a different angle. The black grid is at 45°, magenta is at 75°, yellow is at 90°, and cyan is at 105°. When printed together, they form a rosette pattern.

CMYK Rosette
CMYK Rosette

 

*Solid ink is printed when we use spot colors.

 

Done

12 replies on “The CMYK Color Wheel”

SUCH a useful tutorial.
How do you do the Venn diagram in PS? I’ve been trying to find out for ages: I was shown it once but can’t remember how to do it. I need a way to overlay two colours to help me work out what colour I’m going to get when I dye. Clothing, that is 🙂
Here’s hoping you have time to respond!

Hi Georgina!

That’s a great idea!

I’ll try to put a tutorial for that together today.

Keep in mind that the colors in dyes will sometimes work differently from the colors in light.

Hi Dawn,

That is the best explanation of CMYK I have found on the web so far.
I have one question though; does this mean that if you have artwork that only requires a CMYK process and use a litho press for this; that you still get a dotty image the same as with digital printing? In which case the image quality is not more solid than digital?

I’m not quite sure what you’re asking, but I should clarify that almost everything that is printed on paper uses CMYK and offset lithography. You usually cannot see the spottiness with the naked eye.

Hello, this is a fantastic web site. I think what is being asked in the question above regards the printing dot:

“Anoula says:
09/04/2009 at 4:54 am
Hi Dawn,

That is the best explanation of CMYK I have found on the web so far.
I have one question though; does this mean that if you have artwork that only requires a CMYK process and use a litho press for this; that you still get a dotty image the same as with digital printing? In which case the image quality is not more solid than digital?”

I would answer the question this way: there are two different types of dot use or screening. AM screening, which is amplitude modulation and FM screening which is frequency modulation and also known as stochastic screening. The FM or stochastic screening will closely resemble the digital printer result. AM screening is most typically used by printers.

Res. Madam, I am from India, Trichy. As a dtp operarator i know u very well. ur tutorials, articles are good. Thanks. Thanks, Thanks.
I have not enough knowledge in color correction in a rgb image. (Wedding album). Pls let teach me how to color correct and tricks and techs and color relationship between them.
Thanks

Res. Madam,
Already I read ur color wheel article and saved that page. Unfortunately I missed the same.
I need the article which tells about the how RGB and CMYK colors details
Thanks .

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