What is CMYK? Colour printing terms explained

What’s with the CMYK printing terms – who understands it?

Most often when I mention I work in print, I get asked the question, what does CMYK stand for? What is more what’s with the “K” if it supposed to be Black?

Simply it is the basis of the four ink colours that are applied to paper to produce our print masterpieces. Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y) and Black (K), yes, it’s not a typo it is “K” for Black. The “K” or Key is what adds detail and adds the contrast to the printed image. Some sources suggest that the “K” in CMYK comes from the last letter in “black” and was chosen because B already means blue. This statement too is for another day and another explanation.

When we do Litho (Offset) printing the 4 colours CMYK are applied to the paper via plates, in 4 Stations. Each station makes us the CMYK colours and that gets applied to the paper in sequential layers/dots. Each dot (C+Y+M+K) makes up the completed image in the end.

By varying the concentration of these colours we can also create a vast variety of colours. One can add what we call SPOT colours (Pantone Colours) and then the job becomes a CMYK+Spot. But more on that on another occasion.

However, in Digital printing it gets a bit more “Digital”, Toner that can be either ink, wax or powder format, is applied to one image unit or belt (completed image) and then applied to the paper in one pass or application. Now before my Digital friends shoot me down here… yes, this process can differ from production press to another. Some presses apply the image to the paper in 4 passes. But again, we talk about dots per inch approximating the Litho process. (However not the same. More a simulation process.) This process we will explain in another issue as it is quite controversial and intricate, depending on who you speak with.

I trust this short explanation has cleared up any “grey” areas you may have on the CMYK question. Should you require any further info please feel free to contact us on inquiries@renform.co.za

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