I remember when I started licensing my art, I got very confused about this whole RGB vs CMYK color issue – it isn’t something we ever discussed in marketing class!  I assume many of you who have a degree or training in art were less perplexed by this – but I get questions pretty regularly about it so I thought I’d do a little post about color – as I understand them.  Feel free to add to my and everyone elses knowledge in the comments!

Pink Floyd - dark side of the moon album coverCMYK stands for Cyan (a pale blue) Magenta (a hot pink), Yellow, and Key (or black).  It is called “subtractive color” because it starts with something white – often paper – and filters out wavelengths by applying ink to the paper.  (Remember physics? Yes, it is coming back to haunt you! Don’t remember it?  How about Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover – not just pretty, it has meaning!)

RGB stands for Red, Green, and Blue.  RGB is “additive color” because it starts with black – or the absence of light – and adds light in colors as needed.

Computer monitors use RGB while most printers that print on paper use CMYK.

You might still be scratching your head and saying, “Tara, this is fascinating but still leaves me in the dark about what to do with my art if I want to license it.”

My answer: ask your clients.

Here is how I handle color – and I’m sure someone will jump in and tell me that I’m wrong but I’m just telling you what I do – my scanner scans in RGB and I like the way colors look on my monitor in RGB.  I create everything in RGB.

When I work with a new client, one of my first questions is, “What color mode do you need my art in, RGB or CMYK?”  Then I remember which manufacturer wants what and deliver the files appropriately.

But what happens when you move your art between color modes?

If you work in Photoshop, you might think it’s as simple as going to the IMAGE menu, clicking MODE and changing from RGB to CMYK.  Depending on the colors in your art, this could work with little visible differene or really change the way your art looks.

Certain colors – blue in particular – really change when you make them CMYK.  Below is an example of a blue square I created in an RGB space – nice and bright!  I then put it in a new file and simply changed the color mode to CMYK.  See how drastically it changed?  Pretty significant!

Color is a huge issue in art and printing and will vary by the factory doing the printing, what is being printed on – paper, ceramic, fabric, etc.  There are no easy solutions.

Here are some suggestions to make color – and your clients – your art’s best friend:

  • Think about the end printing process when you create if possible.  If you know you are designing something for a company that needs art in CMYK, know that the brilliant blue you paint won’t be quite so bright in the end.  Be willing to accept some changes – it’s the nature of the business.
  • Get some Pantone color fans. 
  • When I design for ceramics, rugs or some fabrics, a few clients ask me to give them the closest Pantone Fashion and Home color matches (TPX) to my art.  So I paint, then sit with the fan and place colors next to them to make my choices.  It helps them communicate color with the factory and get the best results.
  • The Color Bridge fan is helpful to see how colors will change from RGB to CMYK since they have the swatches side by side.  You can get more technical if you have the “coated” or “uncoated” fans to see how the colors work on coated or uncoated paper.
  • Learn more at www.Pantone.com
  • Really controlling and picking colors is easier if you are a digital artist who creates on the computer.  Artists like myself who paint by hand and scan have to understand that the colors may shift a little more.  The important thing is to remember that your client’s goal is to get it looking as good as possible – that is what will make it sell.  So I pay attention to color, but I don’t obsess about it.

Hopefully this helps… now all you color experts, chime in in the comments and teach us more!

Here’s to your creative success!

– Tara Reed