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Beginner's handbook

RGB vs CMYK: Guide to Color Spaces

By Reading Time: 5 minutes

Imagine a color, any color. It could be bright and vibrant, or dark and dull. You’ve probably seen it somewhere, maybe in your favorite movie or on a cool poster hanging in your office. Combine enough colors and soon you’ve got a cool design. If you’ve ever wanted to put that design on something and sell it, you’ve probably done some tinkering in Photoshop.

The print file you get out of Photoshop and the image as it appears on your t-shirt might not be the same though. Often, the difference has to do with color spaces, and why there’s a difference between how colors appear on our screens and how they look in real life.

In this post, I’ll go in-depth about one of the trickier color-related topics–RGB vs. CMYK color spaces. I’ll break it down by answering some of the most important questions:

  • What are RGB and CMYK and when do we use them?
  • What is the difference between RGB and CMYK?
  • What is the most suitable color space for printing?
  • Is CMYK better than RGB?

Let’s start with some basic color facts. All the colors we can see with our eyes are part of the visible color spectrum. They’re represented in the circle below.

Visible color spectrum

Because of technological limitations, our computer screens and other similar devices can’t display every color that our eyes can see. Instead, display screens show colors in the RGB space.

What is RGB?

RGB stands for the three colors Red, Green, and Blue.  The color space uses Red, Green, and Blue light to make new colors. You can see the RGB range compared to visible colors in the picture below.

RGB color spectrum

Each pixel in the digital devices we use has three tiny, slightly overlapping RGB light sources that trick our eyes into seeing just one color when looking from a distance.

So if you wanted to show something yellow, the RGB pixel would shine green and red light together, while leaving the blue one off. The stronger the light intensity, the brighter the colors appear. At full intensity, the combined colors appear white and at zero intensity they appear black.

What’s great about the RGB color space is that it gives you a wide of range color combinations you can play with when creating digital designs.

When is the RGB color space used?

RGB colors are used for digital purposes. Any images that appear on a digital screen will be displayed in RGB. This is important to remember when creating your print files since you’ll most likely do it in Photoshop or similar software.

If you’re Printful customer, we recommend you create your print files in CMYK and then convert them to RGB color space, or, to be exact, sRGB color profile. I’ll explain the exact reasons later, but first, you might be wondering what CMYK is.

What is CMYK?

CMYK stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (which is just another word for black). It’s basically the opposite of RGB; it uses colored ink to mask colors on a light background. This light background (usually white) reflects light, so each layer of ink applied subtracts from white light to make new colors.

For example, if you combine Yellow and Magenta (meaning subtract yellow from magenta), then you get Red. You can combine any two Cyan, Magenta, or Yellow colors to create one of the three RGB colors.

If it’s confusing, just try to think about drawing with colored pencils. If you combine two different colors, you’ll get a third. It’s the same idea behind CMYK.

When you combine all three colors, you get grey. Since we also need black, it’s the fourth color. This is also why CMYK is sometimes called the four color space.

Compared to RGB and visible color, the CMYK range looks like this:

CMYK color spectrum

When is the CMYK color space used

CMYK is recommended for any printed material. This includes all of Printful’s products, from apparel to mugs, posters, and more.

Why do we use CMYK for printing? It reflects the colors more accurately.

What is the difference between RGB and CMYK?

Key DifferencesRGBCMYK
What does it stand forRed, Green, BlueCyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black
What's it used forDigitalPrinted
Variety of colorsLots of colors, vibrantFewer colors, sharper
Photoshop settingsDefaultMust convert from RGB to CMYK
Accepted print fileYESNO

I like to think of RGB as a lit match in a dark room, while CMYK is a picture of the lit match in the dark room.

With CMYK, color intensity is not as flexible as in RGB. It’s just impossible to replicate on ink paper or fabric the same intensity and brightness that a digital display can show.

This means some RGB colors will show up differently when printed in CMYK. The software you’re designing in (Photoshop and others) is set to RGB color space by default (in most casses: sRGB color profile specifically). That’s fine if your designs are only going to appear online, but printed designs need to be done in CMYK. You can read Printful’s Color Matching Disclaimer for more details about this.

We recommend using CMYK when designing print files for a few reasons:

  1. RGB files tend to be smaller
  2. Only advanced software has the option to design in CMYK

How to convert RGB to CMYK

This depends on the software you use and which version you have, so I recommend finding a tutorial online for the software you have. Here is a short RGB to CMYK Photoshop CC tutorial.

Is CMYK better than RGB?

CMYK and RGB have different uses, and it’s important to know when to use which. Since we’re focusing on printing, we want to stay within the CMYK range. However, technology is advancing and Printful’s printers can already print colors outside of the usual range, although we still suggest sticking to approved methods. What happens if you don’t convert your RGB colors to CMYK?

Let’s take a look at this design as it appears in Photoshop:

Digital design example

As you can see, the colors stand out and the shadows are visible. Now let’s compare it to a printed t-shirt with the same design:
Not color corrected vs color corrected

Clearly, it doesn’t look the same. The t-shirt on the left looks flat and dull and hasn’t been color corrected. The t-shirt on the right matches the vibrant colors of the original design, it was color corrected.

You can see how much of an improvement this is. The colors stand out, they’re brighter than they were before and the printed version really captures what the original design was going for.

So how do you avoid printing the wrong colors show up on your products? We recommend ordering color swatches. These are samples of different RGB colors as they appear on printed material. This will help you determine how to color correct for print. 

Color swatches look like this:
Printful color swatch example

They come on a black or a white t-shirt and have multiple different RGB colors printed allowing to see how the colors look on your screen compared to real life. They also come with the numbered color codes for Photoshop for you to manually adjust colors if necessary. You can download the digital files of the swatches below. If you feel comfortable using photo editing programs like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, you can create your own custom swatches with the colors you use more frequently and make a sample order with those.

Download Printful’s Color Swatches

Combine your colors

Be brave and experiment with your color designs. Figuring out the right ones might take some work, but you’ll get there soon enough. Just remember these differences between RGB and CMYK and you’ll be a color expert in no time!

And don’t worry if you’re nervous about setting up your design files correctly, we’re more than happy to help you with that as well. Feel free to contact our Design Services team, they can assist you in navigating this sea of color.

You can find me devouring the dusty marigold pages of my First Edition Wheel of Time collection while enjoying a plate of fluffy pancakes next to my adopted goldfish, Harold.

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  1. Hansel

    Hello 🙂

    About the “Printful’s Color Swatches” file you have almost at the end of this article, which has 2 png files. Shouldn’t it be better if you upload the Adobe Illustrator file that contains those swatches? I presume it was created in Illustrator, so you could share that source file your Graphic Designer did.

    There is also something I don’t get: If I work on CMYK and once I finish the art I change the profile to sRGB, it will keep the dull colours from CMYK which means it won’t create a brighter colours… So what’s the reason to convert CMYK to sRGB?

    Apart from that, you are saying that your printer is great and it will allow sRGB range of colours or almost close to that spectrum. So it wouldn’t be way better if you share an Illustrator file with all the swatches in sRGB your printer can really handle? instead of a PNG files in CMYK turned into sRGB (because as I mentioned, it will only show the CMYK spectrum, so it’s not like a “real sRGB”)

    Not sure if I explained myself correctly!

    Anyway we all want to take advantages of your printer to make the colours as vibrant as possible. So I believe something is missing here or at least something is not right on these instructions, but I could be wrong.

    Thanks a mill 🙂

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey Hansel! We don’t recommend and provide .ai format files for printing as not all customers have Illustrator or any other vector graphics program to open these types of files. Also, the .png format is print-ready and we just want to make it easier for majority of our customers to use. Our printers are calibrated to sRGB color profile what’s why we recommend submitting files in sRGB color profile. We must agree on the dull color note, but if you’re working with graphic design it’s ok to do it in sRGB from the beginning.

  2. JayJay

    Hi Ed and design team, is there a preferred CMYK profile/s, our choices on Affinity are CYMK8 or Lab16. We are reformatting or redesigning the more popular designs in spare moments. Someone ordered a hoodie last month and the brick red # A92825 was more of a burnt orange #E83A31. The customer doesn’t know any different and still loves it, they proudly showed it off. But we have to fix the profile ASAP before anyone else orders more because it’s Youtube merch and a partner brand. Thank you.

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey! If you are creating designs specifically for DTG printing then we suggest U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2 CMYK color profile that you can set under the Preference page. We also recommend color matching your designs.

  3. Samuel

    From the article:
    “We recommend using CMYK when designing print files for a few reasons:

    1. RGB files tend to be smaller
    2. Only advanced software has the option to design in CMYK”

    Do you mean to recommend RGB instead?

    Also, how do we ensure colour accuracy across products of different materials, such as apparels vs pillow cases vs phone cases?

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey Samuel, thanks for reaching out! To answer your questions:
      1. Yes, we meant to say RGB.
      2. We cannot guarantee color accuracy across different products due to product material and printing techniques (Direct to Garment and UV printing for phone cases are very different). Here’s a link to how different fabric affects printing within DTG >
      Hope this helps!

  4. Cherrey


    I just downloaded the color swatches but I see that it’s labeled for tshirt designs. Will these swatches work the same for mugs? Or you have another swatches specific for that?

    1. Daniela Bergmane

      Hey! Generally, I’d not recommend using color swatches, designed for t-shirt designs, for mugs. As these two are completely different types of products with completely different dimensions, textures, and so on, there’s a high chance that the design you have in mind may be far from the truth when it comes to the final result.

      However, you can try out and who knows — perhaps the outcome will be great! 🙂

  5. Stella Dimitrova

    Hello and thank you for this post! I stumbled upon it after ordering a print of mine and the colors were so much more vibrant than the ones in my file. One would think it would be the other way around! 😀 My artwork was drawin un RGB mode and so was the final file. So this got me thinking that there should be some color mode preferences. From what I understand, i need to create my artwork in CMYK (do you guys have any particular profile you prefer) and then ..revert it to RGB (does that change the final look of the colors?) Thank you for including your swatches! I noticed they are for t-shirts. Can they be used also for posters and other materials?

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey Stella! We recommend working in sRGB IEC61966-2.1 color profile if you are working in RGB color mode. If you wish to work in CMYK color mode we recommend using U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2 for DTG printing (for posters) and Coated FOGRA39 (ISO 12647-2:2004) for Cut&Sew products. Converting from CYMK to RGB color mode shouldn’t change the look of the colors as long as the correct profiles are used. Indeed, we don’t have specialized color swatches for posters or other materials, but you can use existing ones to test the outcome on different materials.

  6. Stella Dimitrova

    Another question – what process do you recommend for scanned art? I do some acrylics art that i scan. Would I have to convert the file, which is usually in RGB to CMYK and then back to RGB?

    1. Alise Zindiga

      We would recommend scanning the handmade drawings in high-quality by choosing 300dpi in the scanners setting. If you would like to make sure that all colors are into the gamut then please convert your RGB file into the CMYK and then back to RGB. This way can make sure that all colors will be in color gamut.

  7. Gus

    My designs were created on the RGB color space.
    1.Should I convert then to CMYK so I can have a better idea on how they would print and make any necessary adjustments if needed then save it back to sRGB before uploading it to Printful? or
    2. Should I just color proof on photoshop and again make the necessary adjustments if needed then save it back to sRGB before uploading it to Printful ?

    THANKS you, G

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, thanks for reaching out! I’m no design pro myself, but thankfully our design team was ready to support me on this, so here’s the suggestion from them:
      1. There is a very simple and easy option on how to save files for printing. You can switch to CMYK color mode and save the document in .Png file format. Since .Png files are only in RGB color space you don’t need to convert them back to RGB through Photoshop.
      2. In order to color proof graphics, you need ICC profile that we do not give to our customers.
      If you are working in RGB color mode, we suggest using the Gamut Warning option in Photoshop and setting your CMYK working space to U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2 for DTG prints and Coated FOGRA39 (ISO 12647-2:2004) for AOP. This way you will see all of the out of gamut colors while you are working with the design and you can make adjustments to the colors right away.

  8. Nicholas Taylor

    Please provide a a public .ase swatch file which has all of those RGB values. As it stands, Printful is basically telling designers to go download the PNG at the bottom of this blog post and to manually copy every single RGB color code to create their own .ase file from scratch. I hope I don’t need to tell anyone how tedious and customer unfriendly that is.

    Surely the designers that Printful uses for in-house orders all have a consistent swatch pallet that they all use… Why not make that available to everyone? It’d be as simple as linking it at the bottom of this post in addition to that png.

    1. Daniela Bergmane

      Hey, Nicholas, as far as I know, this isn’t planned for now, however, thank you for sharing the suggestion and I’ll share it with our responsible colleagues.

  9. Preeti

    hi, i’m literally confused about the color format, i have been working in a printing industry since long where i design the file in CMYK and export it in CMYK only for final printing. I’m not getting it why is it required to make the design in cmyk then export it in RGB, then again you convert it into cmyk for printing. Why can’t i just export the file in cmyk directly? Which color outcome should i expect in final print? Also i want to know the printer you use to print the tshirt is it a CMYK printer or RGB?

    1. Alise Zindiga

      Hey, we recommend designing in CMYK and then converting it to sRGB color space and that is because you can’t export PNG if the color profile is CMYK.
      sRGB should be used instead because it supports PNG, better for transparencies and quality overall, and it’s a wider color gamut than CMYK, which means colors will look better.
      Last, but not least, we use Kornit printers for DTG, and they are CMYK.

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