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What's the Difference Between PMS, CMYK, and RGB?

You can't talk about printing without talking about color.

Yet color terminology is confusing, because customers use computer monitors to create and view job files, while printers use offset and digital presses to produce those jobs. Computers and presses use different colorspaces. They literally speak a different language.
With this newsletter, we hope to bring clarity to the confusion surrounding color. The best way to approach color as it relates to printing is to understand the three distinct color spaces used in the industry: PMSCMYK, and RGB

PMS (Pantone Matching System)

PMS is an acronym for Pantone Matching System, created by Pantone for specifying ink colors for commercial printers. Printers talk about "PMS colors" or "spot colors." They are custom-mixed ink colors that customers might request when they need a particular color for something, like a company logo. PMS colors are applied in solid layers, not in a pattern of tiny dots created by CMYK blends.
Customers can see and choose particular PMS colors using PMS swatch books. Swatch books include a chip of every solid PMS color (like paint colors at a hardware store). Some include PMS colors on coated as well as uncoated stock; other swatch books show one or the other.
Printers speak the "language of PMS" all the time, which makes the swatch books an important common resource for customers and printers. Currently, there are over 1800 solid PMS colors for printing ink on paper. Keep in mind that digital printing devices can't reproduce PMS colors; they must be converted to CMYK. 
CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black)

These CMYK colors are the four primary colors used for "full-color" or "four-color" printing. Printed images on paper consist of patterns of dots made up of these four specific colors. This color space consists of several thousand colors.
When you need a job printed in full-color, your printer will achieve the ink colors you specify by printing a mixture of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black inks. Most, but not all, colors can be reproduced using a CMYK blend. If your design requires a particular solid PMS color then your printer may obtain that custom-mixed ink and run that color as a separate color in the press run. Some PMS swatch books show the matching CMYK blend and the solid PMS ink color chip. This swatch book is called a Pantone Color Bridge.
If you look closely at an image printed in full-color, using a printer's loupe (a special magnifying lens), you'll see thousands of colored dots. But a PMS color seen through the loupe will not have dots - it's just solid ink.
RGB (Red, Green, Blue)

RGB is the color space of computer screens. Color on a computer monitor consists of millions of dots in these three colors. Think of RGB as the visual color space. Think of PMS and CMYK as the printed color space.
Though there is some overlap between the CMYK and the RGB color systems, they are very different. RGB must be converted to CMYK before a job is printed. Typically, a printer does this conversion. And there are more colors in RGB than there are in CMYK blends. So there can be a color shift.
Converting colors between PMS, CMYK, and RGB is an easy process with Print-Tech's prepress tools, but you need to be aware that there will be differences between what your monitor shows and what the finished printed piece will look like. We're experts at color, and we can show you what to expect and how to plan for a predictable, great-looking printed job. 
We hope that these color basics help you grasp the key differences between PMS colors, CMYK, and RGB. This knowledge will come in handy when communicating with your printer as well as with your designer.

In our next newsletter, we'll expand this discussion about ink colors with helpful tips on ways to get the color outcome you expect.

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