Color Space RGB CMYK Pantone Kettle Fire Creative color space Beginner’s Guide to Color Space: RGB, CMYK, and Pantone color space

The logo looked perfect on Josh’s Dell UltraSharp monitor. So, we emailed our client the new color concept to print out and discuss with key stakeholders. In doing so, we made a near fatal color space mistake.

As many of us would, the client opened the email attachment on his phone. Instead of the perfect shade of pine green we intended, he saw a sick pukish color reminiscent of industrial waste. Thanks to our strong relationship, he didn’t freak out and cancel the logo refresh project. He called and asked if there could be something wrong with the document we sent over. And that’s when it hit us. Assuming the page would be printed, we’d formatted it with spot color and the client was staring in disgust at his RGB-reading cell phone screen. In short, we had a color space nightmare.

What is color space?

The human eye can perceive about 10 million colors. Unfortunately no monitor, screen, or printer can replicate that. Not even close. That means each device and printer has to be programmed to use a specific color model and color space in order to approximate color as seen by the human eye.

Color space is a method of organizing and understanding the color capabilities of a digital device or file. It tells you what a printer can print, a camera can capture, or a monitor can display. A color model is a mathematical system of categorizing color. Each color space references a color model.

Color Space paint swatches Kettle Fire Creative color space Beginner’s Guide to Color Space: RGB, CMYK, and Pantone paint store 2 e1476390635190

Swatches in a paint store are technically a type of color space.

Commonly used color spaces


RGB is technically a color model or a way a classifying colors. You see RGB most often on your TV, cell phone, and computer monitor. RGB is an additive color model that blends the primary colors of light: red, green, and blue. It’s additive because you start with darkness, the absence of color, and you add different amounts of light to get the color you want.

There are several color spaces that reference the RGB color model. You probably see sRGB the most. Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard created it in the 1990s specifically for the Internet. In 1998, Adobe developed Adobe RGB in order to display colors on a screen the way they would look when printed. This is extremely useful for designers and photographers. Keep in mind, this sophisticated color space still only displays about 50% of visible color.

Color Space RGB vs CMYK photo Kettle Fire Creative color space Beginner’s Guide to Color Space: RGB, CMYK, and Pantone RGB VS CMYK e1476392023868

The brighter left photo shows RGB. The right shows less saturated CMYK.


CMYK is a subtractive color space based on the primary colors of print: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. If you have a nice printer at home, you’ll notice those are the four colors of ink cartridges you have to replace. CMYK is specifically used in printing. You start with a substrate, like a white piece of paper, and you add inks to achieve the desired color.

This one confused me for a long time. If you’re adding ink to paper, why is CMYK a subtractive color space? That has to do with the science behind color and light. White light is the presence of all wavelengths or all colors of light. Different inks absorb certain wavelengths of light and reflect others. Your red sweater is actually absorbing tons of colors and reflecting back red for the cones in your eyes to process. In printing, ink is added to a white page to absorb – or subtract out – all the color wavelengths you don’t want to see. The wavelengths that aren’t absorbed are reflected back to your eye and seen. Thus, adding ink equals subtracting colors. So, CMYK is called a subtractive color space.

Color Space RGB CMYK Kettle Fire Creative color space Beginner’s Guide to Color Space: RGB, CMYK, and Pantone Cmyk rgb add sub

RGB light combines to create white; whereas CMYK inks combine to form an imperfect black.

Pantone Matching System

Pantone is an arbitrary color space. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important; it just means it’s not based entirely on a mathematical formula. In 1956, Lawrence Herbert was hired part-time at M&J Levine Advertising. He used his chemistry skills to systemize the way the company used pigments to produce colored inks. Thanks to Herbert, the printing division became the only part of the company making a profit, so he bought the whole kit and caboodle for $90,000 and renamed it Pantone.

Pantone releases yearly guides that display their 1,114 spot colors. These colors are made using an exact recipe of 13 pigments plus black. Printers can use these recipes to ensure their products look exactly like their customers imagined. It also brings consistency across printing companies. If you send two printers the same image in Pantone, the images should come back identical. Unlike RGB and CMYK, Pantone formulas are intellectual property, so printers have to pay for access.

Color Space Pantone color guide Kettle Fire Creative color space Beginner’s Guide to Color Space: RGB, CMYK, and Pantone pantone guides on black e1476391084106

Pantone releases new color guides each year.

When color spaces collide

The real reason designers and other professionals need to understand color space is because the spaces don’t line up with each other evenly, just like how an idiom in one language might not translate perfectly into another. Each color space or model has a gamut, a range of possible colors within that space. Some color spaces have wider gamuts than others. Pure red, for example, is possible in an RGB color model but not in CYMK. So if you want to print a photo with pure red in it, your software and printer have to convert the pure red to the closest possible CMYK color. It won’t be a perfect match. Most of the Pantone colors don’t have an exact CMYK match either, which is understandable considering Pantone uses 14 inks and CMYK only four.

This is how the situation with our client arose. He was viewing an image on an RGB screen that was meant to be printed in CMYK and his phone did a particularly bad job of translating the color formulas. Designers and photographers have color management techniques to avoid these mishaps but that gets really technical.

Color Space gamut RGB CMYK Kettle Fire Creative color space Beginner’s Guide to Color Space: RGB, CMYK, and Pantone gamut comparison e1476391146722

This chart shows the  gamuts of several color spaces – including CMYK, sRGB, and Adobe RGB – compared to all visible color.

Why should I care about color space?

Even if you’re not a designer, photographer, printer, or marketer, you can still benefit from a basic understanding of color space. Anyone who enjoys clothes shopping online understands that the color on the screen never perfectly matches the real thing. The reason is your monitor’s projecting in RGB and the dyes on the real item are probably Pantone.

Color Space blue dress Kettle Fire Creative color space Beginner’s Guide to Color Space: RGB, CMYK, and Pantone DB 8567 bridesmaid horizon side e1476393887824

The RGB web image of the dress looks deep teal blue.

Color Space Kettle Fire Creative color space Beginner’s Guide to Color Space: RGB, CMYK, and Pantone dress worn e1476391365413

The actual dress was more vibrant than it looked online.

Open a web page in two different browsers. Compare Firefox and Chrome or Safari and Internet Explorer. You may notice that the images look a lot brighter in one than the other. This is because each browser has a different procedure for handling color space. If you’re ever discussing an image with another person, like we often do with clients, you want to make sure you’re using the same browser.

On an average day, you probably don’t need a super in-depth understanding of the math and science behind additive and subtractive color spaces. But the next time your best friend sends you a link to the “adorable” bridesmaid dress she wants you to wear, pause before you tell her it’s the most hideous shade of orange you’ve ever seen. It’s probably just an issue with color space.

Have you run into a color space crisis? Do you have questions about digital vs. print color? Let us know in the comments.



  • Holly says:

    Great article! I do have some follow up questions for you all. I’ve been out of school for several years and after going on maternity leave from my previous employer it opened the door to some freelance work opportunities. But I still feel uncertain/ rusty in certain areas. Recently I had a customer come to me wanting their current logo updated, so I’ve been working on the design. After a recent meeting it was mentioned by the client that they wanted to change up the orange to a more vibrate orange. They showed me a t-shirt they had printed with a bright neon-ish orange. I know orange can be tricky in itself. So my questions for you if the logo will appear in various spaces (letterhead, building sign, t-shirt, car wraps, and social media) all of which aren’t being printed by the same people. How do I make sure the initial logo design matches as closing as possible to that t-shirt she showed me and then will look correct when used in all those substrates? I was looking into getting the Pantone Bridge Guide or the Pantone formula guide, but wasn’t sure which would be the best all around tool for me being my work Kohl’s be used differently ( like this current client). Thank you in advance for any help!

    • Megan Schaulis says:

      Matching the existing orange shirt will take a little bit of guess work unless you can contact the company that made the shirt, but comparing it to a Pantone guide is a good idea. Once you establish an orange in the new logo, make sure you communicate its color exact formula to the client so it can be matched in future applications. We generally provide usage guides with our logos for that purpose. (Examples: YWAM or China Wok.) We know that the same Pantone color will never look identical in all applications, but trying to adjust for vibrancy of print vs. web can be tricky too. Your design software may have a tool to help you convert between the color spaces. Good luck!

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