Sunday, February 22, 2009

Definitions for the Perplexed: CMYK

"Four-color printing?!" you say. "I don't want four-color printing! My book has more than four colors in it!"

No, actually it doesn't.
CMYK stands for cyan (blue), magenta (red), yellow, and black. Those of you who remember your preschool color-mixing will recall that you can create all the other colors (or, technically, a hell of a lot of them) with blue, red, yellow, and black.

These are the four colors meant when we talk about four-color printing. CMYK printing is the norm.

That's not to say that I haven't worked on books that were not printed in CMYK.
Sometimes a book will call for a special color-- for instance metallic ink on the jacket-- or, as in the case of Chris Barton's book on the brothers who created day-glo colors, the book requires specific colors that you cannot achieve with CMYK.
Nickelodeon's orange? That's a special color. Gap's blue? Special color. Starbucks' green, Barbie's pink... these special colors are usually achieved with Pantone colors. They cost a bit extra.

Here's a color game: Kitten's First Full Moon was expensive to print. Have you wondered how they achieved such a rich black and white look? How many unique colors do you think went into the printing?Answer: seven!


Jo Treggiari said...

When I worked in the music business and helped create album and compact disc covers we often agonized over black, black-black or super black!

Unknown said...

I'm the yearbook advisor at my school, so I know all about CMYK. Still, I found it surprising that the black and white book took seven colors!!!

Chris Eldin said...

I LOVE this topic! Wish I had some more art background...

Literaticat said...

I know that it DID take seven colors. The sales person told me that once upon a time, and I've always remembered it. I just still don't understand WHY. WTF?

No no, don't tell me, my brains still haven't healed.

Katie Anderson said...

I would love to know about Kitten's First Full Moon! I can't imagine why that book was expensive to print?

Anonymous said...

Eight, if you count the gold for the Caldecott sticker on the jacket.

Anonymous said...

Take a class in color theory and you will understand how difficult it really is to make black. I tried several times. I think the teacher actually said that this was extra credit.

Next time I buy a tube of black paint I am going to compare it with the other colors. Off the top of my had I cannot recall if black is more expensive.

Arjay said...

It's 4 color black with what looks like a fifth color. Can't tell for sure the image is too small.

Anonymous said...

i might be the only person in the world that saw the color (or non-color as the case may be) of the illustrations and thought, hmmm, I don't like it.

I can maybe see why adults would like it -- it's very different if nothing else. But aren't kids naturally more drawn to "colors" in picture books?

tim b said...

ae said: "Next time I buy a tube of black paint I am going to compare it with the other colors. Off the top of my had I cannot recall if black is more expensive."

It isn't... black paint is pretty cheap since getting a pretty permanent black pigment isn't all that hard and doesn't require expensive raw materials.

An interesting point, though, is that mixing a 'black' black out of other paint colors is not only difficult; it's usually undesirable. Most out-of-the-tube blacks don't harmonize well with other colors, tending to 'punch holes' visually in the picture plane.

Artists who have used true blacks successfully in paintings (Manet, Spanish painters like Velasquez and Zurbaran)have usually done it by really, really limiting their palettes and making the black a big part of their blends.

Most artists - especially watercolorists - mix what you might call quasi-blacks out of the other colors they're using (for those color theory freaks out there, you do that by mixing complements until you've cancelled everything out; what you get at the end is a minimally reflecting 'reads-as-black' that will still harmonize with the rest of the colors in the painting, since it's made of of those colors in mixture).

That's all a step removed from CMYK, of course. It's important for illustrators - and by extension, everyone else - to remember that the illustrator's final painting and the printed piece reproducing that painting are not the same thing.

Printer's inks - the thing you see on the page when you pick up a book - are a completely different medium and are mixed to create color on the page by completely different methods.

It's technically extraordinarily difficult to achieve a good translation of original art into print; the better the print production people are, the more invisible their labor is.

If they do an amazing job coaxing the image in the book to life, everyone says, wow, that illustrator's amazing. If everything comes out looking garish and wrong, of course, it's all on them.

I've had mostly very good luck in this regard; I've worked with great, great production people over the years. This is one illustrator who's delighted to give credit where it's due.

Sorry to go on this long... this subject is near and dear!

Anonymous said...


as a person working in retail with art supplies, I can tell you that black paints aren't more expensive than the others (higher prices go to the paints that have actual minerals in them, such as cadmium).

However, there's no paint that's simply "black." There's Mars Black, Lamp Black, Jet Black, and Ivory Black (and more I haven't heard of, I'm sure), each of which are slightly different in hue and temperature.

Christine Tripp said...

OK, coming from the really old school this thread scared the heck out of me. I suddenly had visions of the old rubylith, where the illustrator had to lay layers of film that supported exacto cuts of red film on each to denote colours. ACK, it was horrible, then I woke up and remembered I had a computer to now do that:)

Yat-Yee said...

tim b: thanks for taking the time to explain. I do a little watercolor and am very interested in colors, esp. since I favor the transparent colors. The next time I get to my palette, I'll have to do some more experimenting.

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating subject for me. And yes, thanks Tim and others.

Velasquez...a true genius with black...indeed!!

I realize that the mineral based colors are going to bring the cost of paints, etc. up. I didn't factor black out tho for some reason. ;)

And Chris, those rubylith days were limited to my college classes, thank god.

And color theory was one of my hardest (but most interesting) classes. It really is a science course disguised as an art course, I think.

Greg Leitich Smith said...

But it's not just the cost of the chemical. If you're using a standard offset printing press and not just a glorified inkjet or laser printer (which I think is still the case, largely), and you have nonstandard inks, you've got to set aside time on a particular machine, clean, prep it for the new ink, and then clean it all over again when the print run is done. If there's a second printing, the same process all over again...this all takes time and money...

Greg Leitich Smith said...

But it's not just the cost of the chemical. If you're using a standard offset press and not an inkjet or laser printer of some kind (which I think is still largely the case), then if you use a nonstandard ink, you're going to have to set aside time on a particular machine, clean it, prep it for the new ink, and then clean it up when you're done. The press can't be used for anything else until you're done with the particular job (ordinarily, all you'd have to do is change the litho plates). If there's another print run, then you have to do it all over again. All this is time and money...

Anonymous said...

And it's fun to think about how white light is the presence of all colors while white paint is the absence of all color, and conversely, black light is the absence of all color and black paint is the presence of "all" colors.

(Of course using the term "all" quite liberally here.)

Lily Cate said...

Color theory classes? Ha!
Let someone stand your large format printer on end while moving, and then later, as you scrub four seperate inks out of your carpet, you will get a tour of all the hues in the rainbow. For some reason, all the colors came out with stain remover- except the bit that blended into green.
That seems pretty permanent :P

Anonymous said...

Just read through all the definitions (so far...) and find myself absolutely unperplexed. Thank you, EA!

Pepper Smith said...

Interesting. You've covered some topics I never would have thought of asking about. Thanks!

Editorial Anonymous said...

your comments included a link to a business, rather than a further explanation of this topic. As such, they felt like an attempt to sell something, and that's very close to spam.
If you want to try again with a link that's more directly related to this discussion, feel free.

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