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Color Models: CMYK

Learn about how Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black comprise the primary colors used by the print industry.

We have explored what color models are, and also looked at RGB, one of the most used color models. The second color model we are exploring is CMYK. Like RGB, where the alphabets stand for color names Red, Green, and Blue, CMYK also has one color name representing each alphabet – in this case, the colors are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black.

Yes, Black with a K rather than a B, probably because B already represents Blue. Also there's a school of thought that says K stands for Key, and that’s not really a color. The fact is that you can mix Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow to create Black – but the Black that results from this mixing is not really satisfactory, especially when printed on paper. In many ways thus, paper is not as forgiving to colors as the computer screen! Also of course, it is cheaper to use Black ink rather than using three colored inks, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow to create Black.

Do remember that CMYK has almost no use in a PowerPoint centric world, but you will often come across this terminology while receiving visual content for slides from other sources – so a little knowledge about CMYK can be very helpful.

With these 4 primary colors, you can create several million distinct colors! How does that happen? Let's explore further.

Unlike with RGB, where the values for R, G, and B are calculated in 256 values each (from 0 to 255), the values for C, M, Y, and K and mainly calculated in percentages (from 0 to 100%). PowerPoint does not really work with CMYK colors, so let us explore another program, Adobe Photoshop for this purpose. In Figure 1, below you can see Photoshop’s Color Picker dialog box.

Figure 1: Adobe Photoshop's Color Picker dialog

Do notice that:

  • The RGB values of pure Red are 255 parts of Red, 0 parts of Green, and 0 parts of Blue (highlighted in blue within Figure 1).
  • The CMYK values of pure Red are 0% Cyan, 99% Magenta, 100% Yellow, and 0% Black (highlighted in green within Figure 1).

Adobe Photoshop is a high end graphic program, and the color algorithms that it uses match other Adobe programs, but rarely match the algorithms used by PowerPoint. If you want to explore a program that does CMYK, and also matches its algorithms with PowerPoint, then you should explore Microsoft Publisher, a page layout program that's part of the same Microsoft Office suite of applications that also includes PowerPoint.

Here’s what we did next:

  1. Launched Publisher (we used Publisher 2013) and opted to create a blank new publication.
  2. We then added a shape and colored it Red. You add a shape and color it in Publisher in almost the same way that you do it within PowerPoint.
  3. We then accessed the Colors dialog box in Publisher (right-click the shape, choose the Format AutoShape option, and click the Color drop-down menu in the resulting dialog – then choose More Colors).
  4. Notice that Publisher offers the CMYK option in addition to RGB and HSL (highlighted in red within Figure 2, below). PowerPoint on the other hand offers no CMYK option.

  5. Figure 2: CMYK is an option available within Microsoft Publisher
  6. Also when we change the color model to CMYK, the values for CMYK are Red are 0% Cyan, 100% Magenta, 100% Yellow, and 0% Black (highlighted in red within Figure 3). The main difference is that while Photoshop uses a 99% value for Magenta, Publisher uses a 100% value. Such slight differences occur because the internal color algorithms differ a little between Microsoft and Adobe programs.

  7. Figure 3: Note the CMYK values are a little different than Photoshop

Next let us mix different values of C, M, Y, and K to create your own colors, as explained in this table below.

  C M Y K Swatch
Cyan 100 0 0 0  
Magenta 0 100 0 0  
Yellow 0 0 100 0  
Black 0 0 0 100  

These three colors are what we call Primary Colors of the CMYK color model. Now let us mix these colors to create some more colors, as shown in the table below:

  C M Y K Swatch
Red 0    100 100 0  
Orange  0 76 98 0  
Green 63 0 100 0  
Blue 93 67 0 20    

Do remember thought that CMYK as a color model has not much value in the world of presentations and slides – but sometimes you may be required to create print-ready content from PowerPoint, and a basic knowledge of CMYK will help.

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