Computer monitors emit color as RGB (red, green, blue) light. Although all colors of the visible spectrum can be produced by merging red, green and blue light, monitors are capable of displaying only a limited gamut (i.e., range) of the visible spectrum.
CMYK versus RGB color spectrum
Whereas monitors emit light, inked paper absorbs or reflects specific wavelengths. Cyan, magenta and yellow pigments serve as filters, subtracting varying degrees of red, green and blue from white light to produce a selective gamut of spectral colors. Like monitors, printing inks also produce a color gamut that is only a subset of the visible spectrum, although the range is not the same for both. Consequently, the same art displayed on a computer monitor may not match to that printed in a publication. Also, because printing processes such as offset lithography use CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) inks, digital art must be converted to CMYK color for print. Some printers prefer digital art files be supplied in the RGB color space with ICC profiles attached. Images can then be converted to the CMYK color space by the printer using color management methods that honor profiles if present; this helps preserve the best possible detail and vibrancy.
Red, Green, Blue – Additive colors
Cyan, Magenta, Yellow – Subtractive colors
It can sometimes be difficult to visualize the reason for color shift in color space conversion. The best way to see the color differences between the CMYK and RGB color spaces is to look at a color gamut comparison chart. The chart to the left plots the visible color spectrum as the large “horse shoe” area, and within this is a plot of the CMYK colors, and the RGB colors. You can see that in some areas the RGB color space is “outside” that of the CMYK space. It is these colors that will be affected by a conversion from RGB to CMYK.