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What The Four Color Process Means For Printer Ink Colors

2010-06-27

While there are many techniques for reproducing images in color, the most common and effective type used for printing everything from cereal boxes to photographs, is the four color process. If you have a look inside your own color printer, you will probably see printer inks in four colors: cyan, a blue-green hue, magenta, a pink-red hue, yellow, and black. This combination is often referred to as CMYK. The K stands for key because when this same process is used on a professional plate press, the other colors are "keyed" or aligned with the black plate.

You may have learned in school that red, blue, and yellow were the primary paint colors and that by mixing combinations of these three paints you could create the other colors you wanted. The theory is the same with cyan, magenta and yellow; the ink colors are slightly different because this system is based on light that we see reflected off surfaces such as a white piece of paper.

With the four color process, each printer ink is applied to the page separately and in differing amounts one on top of another. Extremely tiny dots of each of these primary colors are printed to produce a small pattern that our eyes make out as a solid color. The smaller the dot, the higher the quality of the image will be. Each pattern creates a different color. For example, an area covered in 20% magenta dots and 80% yellow dots will create, to our perception, a solid bright orange. An area covered in 20% magenta dots and otherwise left blank is viewed as a solid pink color, this is called halftone, because some of the pattern has been left white. From the thousands of pattern variations come thousands of colors.

Black ink is added to this process because, while in theory the blending of cyan, magenta, and yellow will create black, the total amount of printer ink used from a mixture of all three colors would saturate the paper through and then take a while to get dried. Also, in reality, combining cyan, magenta, and yellow usually produces a brown-black color instead of true back, and darker hued colors can seem muddy. The CMYK model uses black ink instead to produce precise deep black tones and crisp dark colors. The addition of black also helps lessen the overall cost, as replacing the single black printer ink occasionally costs a lot less matched up against having to swap the three ink colors much more often.

With the four-color processes, a handful of printer ink colors become a true kaleidoscope, so no matter the project, business or creative, the end result is an always professional and beautiful outcome.

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