How does CMYK work?

Because process color ink pigments are imperfect, pure black cannot be achieved by overprinting CMY inks.

Consequently, black (K) ink is introduced in addition to, or in substitution for, CMY inks. The combined value of all CMYK inks for a particular area or object cannot exceed a specified amount, or ink may not transfer effectively and printed sheets may not dry properly.

This specified amount, referred to as Total Area Coverage (TAC), typically is limited to 300% for offset lithography using coated paper. Compensation for TAC limitation is accomplished during the separation process, by which RGB color is converted to CMYK.

Color seperations

The images below show all color print processes seperate: cyan, magenta, yellow & key (black).

CMYK Seperations

CMYK color seperations

CMY & CMYK color combinations

The image to the left shows the image when the primary CMY inks are combined. The image is lacking the shadow area details, and looks "washed out". To correct this the color Black is introduced to the image


CMY combination


CMYK combination

In the image to the right the Black (key) has been incorporated into this image, and it now is ready to go to press!

About the author

Damien van Holten Hi there! My name is Damien. I'm a designer & developer. I’ve got a passion for awesome code and I love tea with lots of milk. I’m currently located in lovely Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

Questions, comments or just want to talk? I'm happy to get in touch with you. Don't hesitate to email me or contact me on twitter: @damienvanholten.