CMYK, spot, and RGB colors. What the heck are you talking about? I just want printed t shirts!

  • Oct 27, 2021


By Eva Reinoso Tejada


We just placed new feather flags outside our store, to replace the old ones and give a boost to our street visibility. Not only they look great, but a few customers have popped in and told us they saw the flags and decided to pull over. These flags represent the basic color model of CMYK. But what is that?!

When you are trying to buy a printed t-shirt, or get business cards for your business, or even add your logo to your truck, you need to know that not all colors are created equal, much less printed equal. There is a lot to say and explain regarding color profiles, and it can get very technical. To keep it simple, I will explain the most common terms your printer might (or should) mention:

1.       Spot color printing. This term refers to printing that is made with an ink that has been mixed to match a specific color. You might hear: These are my standard spot color inks for business cards or for t-shirts, or these are my standard vinyl colors for truck lettering, or these are the color threads I have for embroidery. If you are buying a white mug printed with your red and black logo, straight black ink and red inks will be used for this type of ‘spot color printing’. The nature of the product and the printing process calls for the use of spot inks, and it will get you a nice solid color match. Example of spot color inks2.       Full color, process color or CMYK printing. This term refers to the four basic colors that most printers use (yes, like the toner you use at home!). This process uses cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks to create any color you can think of. This is used mostly to print on paper for business cards, fliers and brochures, and if you want to wrap your vehicle with graphics and photos. It is also the process used for banner printing. Combining thousands of tiny dots, it can create the image you want, whether it is a sticker with the photo of your dog, or a business card with your picture. In this model, white is the absence of color, and the use of all colors will give you a muddy and rich black. This model is not ideal for fabric, as screen printing is a very spot-color oriented process, and embroidery is to be done with specific threads, that usually don’t blend.

Graphic showing CMYK inks

 3.       RGB color. RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue. This model is used for digital images, and it mimics how the human eye perceives light and colors. This includes everything that you see on a screen (websites, social media posts, your computer, your phone, etc.). In this model, black represents the absence of color, and white represents the presence of all colors. Any image in RGB will always look brighter and more vivid. But printing doesn’t happen in RGB. There is always a conversion to CMYK, or other more sophisticated color techniques, but there are no RGB inks.

Diagram showing how the RGB color model works

Why do you care about all this? It is important to have a conversation with your printer and understand what is the best way to print what you want. For example, it is easier to print a two-spot color logo on a t-shirt than a photo of a person. At the same time, on paper, most printing takes place in CMYK, but you can still mimic spot colors, even if you don’t get a perfect match, with some possible variations between batches. Keep in mind that when your printer sends you a digital proof of what your product will look like, you are looking at a RGB image, and the final printed product might look different. Also, some products might only be available on CMYK printing, while others might be more of a spot color fit. Your printer will know what prints best in which model.

After 22 years in this business, I have learned that it pays off to take some time to make sure the customer has a basic understanding of how printing and decorating works, so their expectations are not too far from reality. This will prevent disappointment when the product is delivered, as there is nothing more heartbreaking for a printer than to find out that your customer is not 100% happy with their product. Call Image Impressions today at 303-308-9444 to find out what is the best way to print your project. I will help you figure that out.

  • Category: Marketing Ideas that work
  • Tags: Printed t-shirts, Full color printing, spot color printing, photo printing, vehicle wraps, printed mugs, business cards
Close Search