Intro to CMYK & RGB
How Did We Get In This Mess?
Why Does My Beautiful Computer Image

In the beginning...

... the world was black and white.
Then the 1960’s came. And there was color!
Trust me on this . . . I was there. If you don’t believe it, there is documentation . . . TCM
. . . but I digress . . .

Nobody knew what a rgb was. Except maybe the tv repairman who had to come to your house and readjust the color televison set, because your mom got a wild hair and – gasp! – she REARRANGED THE LIVING ROOM AND MOVED THE TV!!! IT’S TUESDAY NIGHT AND WE’RE GONNA’ MISS RED SKELTON!! AAARGH!!!

Anyway . . .

The printers – journeymen printers, mind you (that means they were really, really good printers) – knew all about cmyk. ‘Cause when the color showed up, they found out that if they took a pretty piece of art, they could put filters on their cameras and take pictures ot it, and end up with film to burn only four plates for their printing presses. They only had to print cyan, magenta, yellow and black inks to make what they printed look just like what they had taken the picture of. For the uninformed, that would be kind of a sky blue, a hot pink, and . . . well, you should be able to figure out the other two . . . surely!

Only needing four colors was great! Even so, it was still too expensive for average people to buy four color process printing, but even the rich people wouldn’t have been able to afford it if they had had to print a zillion colors.

I don’t remember his name, but there was a man who actually invented a press that could print a zillion colors. And it worked! But nobody was rich enough to build a building big enough to hold the darn thing. So he didn’t sell any presses and his creditors came after him and he went bankrupt and his wife left him and his dog bit him and while hobbling across some railroad tracks on his way to get medical help a train ran over him. A hobo riding on the train witnessed the whole terrible incident and wrote a sad ballad about it and that’s how country music was invented. Don’t care if you don’t believe it . . . you didn’t believe the first part either, and I have photographic evidence of that. But I digress . . .

It was good that average folks couldn’t afford four color process, because we had to invent ways for poor people to get printing done, too. That meant I had a job, ‘cause I could cut rubylith and zip-a-tone and I could even run a Headliner machine. Don’t worry about what all those are . . . I’m tired of explaining . . . you don’t believe anything anyway.

So the rgb stayed on the television. And the rich folks and the journeymen printers had their cmyk printing. Everything was where it belonged and all was right with the world . . . well, except for this war thing and a lot of nonsense about pigs and missiles. And they lied about us being safe under our desks. They just wanted us all together in one place so they wouldn’t have to search for the bod..... nevermind . . . all was RIGHT WITH THE WORLD!

The Turning Point

Things rocked along fine for a couple of decades . . . but at some point, while we all were busy enjoying rock and roll and eating tv dinners in front of our color television sets, some guy in some room in some building somewhere invented the computer. No, I don’t know who or where, or any of the details. And I’m not the kind to make things up, so just live with it.

At first, nobody really noticed, ‘cause these computers were huge room-sized monstrosities and the only people who had them or could afford them were government agencies and big, big companies. But over time, the computer builder guys figured out how to build them bigger smaller and smaller and better and better until even regular people could buy them. Hooray! Now we could play PacMan instead of watching reruns all summer!

The journeymen printers were happy, too, ‘cause the computer builder guys built them computers and scanners and software and machines that could separate their images into the four colors and print out their film to burn the plates for the presses. No more filters ! No more cameras! No more stinky, messy darkrooms! Life was GOOD!

It Got Even Better!

Then the computer builder guys thought to themselves, Hey! We made a lot of money off those printers! There are thousands of printers, but there are billions of other people! Let’s invent something they will want to buy!

Boom! We had word processors!
I’m sure the typewriter builders were unhappy . . . but, alas, there are always casualties.

The billions wanted more! Hey, computer guys, we like words on the page, but we want pictures, too!
Boom! Simple graphics software and scanners!

Can they be color pictures?
Boom! Fancier graphics software and color scanners!

Those mean printers are charging us a fortune to print our color pictures! Give us a solution!
Boom! Desktop printers!

A New Era - Desktop Publishing

Now the journeymen printers were ticked off!
Nobody wanted to buy their four color process printing anymore. Why pay all that money, when the billions could print out their own color printing at home?
The printers yelled at the computer builders and demanded they set things right!

Boom! The computer builders built new kinds of printing presses for them. Presses that used toner and not wet, messy cans of ink. And lots of really fancy software to go with the new machines.

At first, the printers weren’t very impressed. They were journeymen printers after all, which is a really, really good printer. These new fangled machines didn’t look like printing presses. They didn’t smell like printing presses. Where was the film? Where were the plate.... wait a minute! No film! NO PLATES!! Show us more! The computer builders opened a door on the front of the machine . . . and there they were: FOUR cartridges: CYAN! MAGENTA!! YELLOW!!! BLACK!!!! These WERE printing presses! And they were bigger and better and badder than those toy machines everyone had at home! Because this was PROFESSIONAL EQUIPMENT! It didn’t last too long, but honestly, the printers got really hard to live with for a while. The whole thing just went right to their heads!

One day Sally Billion came into Joe Printer’s shop:

Sally: “I’m having an event and I want you to print flyers for me to advertise.”

Joe: “Great! I can do that for you! I will charge you $$ to type it up and lay it out. Then I will charge you $$$ to print it.”

Sally: “No, I will pay you $$$ to print it, but I’m typing it up and laying it out myself. I will bring you the file on a floppy and you can print it from that.”

Joe: “Well, I have professional equipment and I’m a really, really good printer. I can do a better job than you and I will print it for $$$ after I type it up and lay it out for $$.”

Sally: “No, I want you to print it from my file and I will pay $$$ for you to print it. Or else I will go to your competitor down the street.”

Joe: “Fine. Have it your way. But I will not be responsible for the results and you will still pay me $$$ and will probably wish you had paid me $$ to type it up and lay it out.”

Sally: “It will be fine. I scanned the photo and laid it all out myself.”

Two weeks later, Joe is standing out front talking to a retired tv repairman when Sally walks in:

Joe: “Hi, Sally! Here are your flyers, all ready to pass out.”

Sally: “Aaargh!! I can’t use these!”

Joe: “Why? What’s wrong with them?”

Sally: “Are you blind?! Can’t you see that the people in this photo have chartreuse skin!!? You need to reprint these!”

Joe: “That’s fine. I will reprint them for you for $$$.”

Sally: “No, you will reprint them for free, because you printed them wrong.”

Joe: “I did not print them wrong. You did the art wrong. You should have paid me $$ and I would’ve typed it up and laid it out for you and it would’ve been right, because I have professional equipment and I am a really, really good printer.”

Sally: “There’s no sense in me paying you $$ when I can do it myself! And there’s nothing wrong with my equipment! I scanned this photo myself and it was right!”

Joe: “Well, it’s obvious that it wasn’t right or else the people in the photo wouldn’t have chartreuse skin!”

Sally: “Well, maybe it’s your ‘professional equipment’ that’s not right!”

Joe: “There’s nothing wrong with my equip...”

The tv repairman broke in: “Hold on, guys! Sally, let’s take a look at your file.”

So they shoved the floppy back into the computer and opened the file.
The tv repairman began to laugh. “There’s nothing wrong with the file. And there’s nothing wrong with the equipment. The file is RGB and you are trying to print it on equipment that is CMYK!”

Say, what?!

Sally had never heard either term.
The printer knew what cmyk was, because he had been printing in cmyk since the 1960’s when color arrived.
He had a color television that was full of rgb, but he had just watched it, and hadn’t tried to actually understand how it worked and had never heard of rgb.

Rgb has been in the world the whole time . . . you know, God made all this stuff. Just ‘cause we don’t know about it, it’s not His fault! Just sayin’. But we hadn’t knowingly dealt with rgb until the televisions and computer monitors showed up. When the computers came along, we tried to print what we saw on our monitors, and didn’t understand the crazy results we were getting.

To understand it all better, click on the article in the menu at left: “CMYK-RGB, Side-by-Side”