Hello! My name is Christopher, and welcome to The Buyer’s Corner: Printing 101. Today I’ll be walking you through the PMS, RGB, and CMYK color systems, and more specifically how they convert between each other. If you are interested in getting some more in depth videos about each of these systems please let me know in the comments below.

So you may be wondering, isn’t it really the printer’s job to deal with the whole color matching/ color converting thing? First off- yes, it is absolutely our job to make sure that the colors look right when moving between systems to keep the art consistent. But the reason that you should know about this is because these color systems each have their own, very well defined traits that limit how well the conversion works, and therefore how the finished piece looks. This means that, as an informed buyer, you should know the limitations of these different systems.

To answer the most common questions and give a general overview, I’ll be quickly covering the origin of each of these systems, the differences between them, and how it all impacts you.

Let’s start off with the oldest, RGB. Yep, the system for generating your computer monitor colors was created in 1861 as an early attempt at making full color photos. It was popularized for computer monitors in 1987. The system is base 4 (red, green, blue, and light intensity) and relies on emitting light (this is really important, I’ll get to why in a minute).

The next one is CMYK, and was created in 1906. Today it is the standard process used in digital presses. This is also a base 4 color system. It uses Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (also known as black). This system reflects light and is known as a process system.

Last one is PMS. This stands for the Pantone Matching System and was created in 1963 as a proprietary ink standardization system. Basically, it made sure that everyone who used it was on the same page when it came to mixing ink. By the way, this is base 14. So yeah, this is a little more complex than the other two. This system also reflects light and is known as a spot system.

Now that we’ve got our backstory, let’s get into what you’re here for; how it affects your art. Each of these systems fill what’s called a color space, which represent how much of the visible color spectrum it can reproduce. The issue with color conversion is that each of these color systems fills a differently sized and shaped color space, so not all systems can reliably produce the colors from other systems. Here are the two types of conversions, and the problems that they face.

The first is emitting versus reflecting light. RGB, the light emitter, is additive. Basically, all the colors in it put together create white. CMYK and PMS, the light reflectors, are subtractive, meaning they equal black when put together. So, what does this mean for colors? RGB can create colors that are much brighter than what the other systems can achieve, so a bright color converted out of RGB can become significantly darker. Also, emitting light means that everything you see in RGB is backlit. Most of the time that option doesn’t exist for the mediums that can be printed on, so the piece will be darker than what is pictured on the screen. This is why physical proofs are extremely important.

Next up is spot versus process; taking the forms of PMS and CMYK respectively. PMS, due to its larger base of distinct colors, has a larger color space than CMYK. This means that in any place where the two don’t overlap, usually with the most vibrant colors of PMS, the results can be pretty unsightly. However, PMS is still only used when an exact color match is absolutely necessary, usually for logos. Now you may be understandably wondering why, if PMS is so much more versatile than CMYK, we don’t just print everything with that instead? The reason is intention in creation. CMYK was made to create full color images. PMS was made to create precise colors. This means that trying to use PMS to create a full color image is extremely difficult and does not give much benefit over CMYK for the effort.

I’d like to wrap up with a few major takeaways. The first is that RGB should not be used if possible when creating a document that’s main purpose is being printed. Its color space is so massive relative to the other two that it can use a large variety of colors that neither printing system will match well. For best results, you should send files in CMYK. Because it has the smallest color space and is great for most full color projects, it will be the most guaranteed way to get the colors that you want. Also, if you must have a specific color, make sure to add the PMS value to the file description. Your company should have things like logo PMS values on file.

Now that you know the basics of how color conversion works, I hope it’ll help you with knowing what to expect when getting your printing done, as well as how to help mitigate color conversion errors.

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