Colour Models and their Characteristics

When it comes time to print your materials, colour is a consideration which must be made. Not only are there millions of shades to choose from, but sometimes, those colours may not translate well when they’ve been printed.

The reasons for so much variation between the optical perception of colour and its resulting appearance on paper are many. From the computer’s perception of colour to the paper types you use, a colour can end up looking completely different than you intended. However, there is another cause of differences in colour; their colour models. In the printing world, these models exist in four types.


RGB stands for red, green and blue. This colour model is used by all screens, including those on computers and mobile phones. Red, green and blue are the colours of light that, when combined create the colours of the spectrum. In the RGB model, each colour is represented by a number between 0 and 255. The way in which numbers are assigned to colours in the RGB model is based on amount of light. A colour with zero light will receive a value of 255, where white is classified as being 0.

RGB is device-dependent, meaning that the values assigned to colours will differ according to the equipment being used to view them. Sending RGB images to a printer can result in amendments needing to be made at the printer’s end to convert the image to a usable model, which can be costly.


The Pantone colour model represents a standardised system that’s used by the whole of the printing industry. Pantone uses 15 base pigments including black and white to create its colours. Each colour is given its own universal code, so that if the same Pantone shade is chosen in Asia and in North America, each will be that exact shade once printed.

The Pantone model contains a different set of colours for coated paper, like that used for business cards, and uncoated paper such as is most commonly seen on ink jet labels. This ensures that the colour will be reproduced accurately regardless of paper type. This is important where a company needs to have its logo look the same on a glossy business card as it does on office stationery.


CMYK stands for cyan, magenta, yellow and black, and is the most commonly-used colour model for the four-colour printing process. Different combinations of these four colours can be used to create virtually any imaginable colour. CMYK is most often used where graphic and photographic images need to be printed with high quality.

The process for printing with the CMYK model is as follows: the more ink that is added, the darker an image will be. In other words, the paper being printed on can be considered a base, with ink being added in the CMYK order until the desired image has been achieved. All images being sent to a printer for printing should be sent in CMYK format.


Hexadecimal colour, also known as HEX code, is a colour model used by the online world. These colours can first be specified as RGB, and then be converted into HEX format. HEX, like RGB, assigns a unique number to each shade. This colour model is what web designers use to create web sites. So if you are having a website designed, specifying colours in HEX format are preferable.

When you think about colours like a printer does, the need to have a specific colour model becomes clear. As well, it is easy to see how an image sent in one type can cause a lot of issues with colour matching when it finally reaches the printer. However, communicating with your printer beforehand to ensure you’re sending images with the correct colour model can save a lot of money and time.

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