Print safe colors and CMYK values

Robert LanePrinting11 Comments

I bring you this list of print safe colors for achieving predictable color results from the CMYK values you choose. I have worked and designed advertising for newspapers heavily now for the past several years. Newsprint is not very bright. Soy based ink works, but registration can be an issue depending on the age of the printing technology being used.

When I first started, I would design advertising with subtle textures and complex colors. Colors that used three and four inks to make up their composition. After less than stellar results, I set out to find a set of primary print safe colors that would work well with better predictability.

The restrictions in newsprint have led me to this point, but higher quality printing can also present some of the same complications. High quality offset printing on modern sheet fed presses would be ideal for every print job. I obviously don’t live in a graphic designers dream world. Which is also another reason I put together this list. You might also use the CMYK values below for simple primary colors in print. These colors can also be a launching point for a more nuanced color palette.

Primary colors with CMYK values
The reality of CMYK print safe colors

The key to any printing project is the substrate. Substrate is the material on which you are printing. So anything from paper and cardstock to plastics, films and foils. There really is no substitute for talking with the prepress department at your commercial print shop. Print safe colors are best achieved after you have seen a proof before production begins.

I wrote an article about achieving true blue in print. Blue is an especially tricky color when it comes to print outcomes.

Quick Question:
I’d love to know if this super simple chart is helpful. What sources do you have for picking CMYK values in your print design projects?
About the Author

Robert Lane


Freelance website designer with an interest to help small businesses grow their online presence and amplify their message using social media through creative content creation.

11 Comments on “Print safe colors and CMYK values”

  1. This article was very helpful. I found that red and pink, however, looked the same on my home printer, for what’s it’s worth.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Joe! You might try dialing back the magenta to 70 perhaps to get a lighter pink. I can see 100 magenta being almost red in certain applications. I appreciate you stopping by the blog.

  2. Hi Robert, thank you for this, as many before me have tried, I’ve been trying to understand a way of second guessing the outcome in a CMYK printed booklet I’m preparing, by choosing appropriate RGB or Hex numbers.
    I’m trying to recreate #6633ff and of course being quite a bright blue I’m struggling with the printed outcome of it, could you recommend the nearest I could get to that colour actually printed please?

    1. Thank you, Stephen, for your comment. Your quandary is not uncommon. However we setup ourselves for failure when we try to compare RGB to CMYK, but it still doesn’t seem to stop us from trying. Not me anyway 🙂 The main problem is the “brightness” we are attempting to match from RGB. In CMYK the brightness is tied more closely to the substrate(paper etc.) and less to the colors themselves. So always opt for a brighter paper when possible or choose a spot color if your budget allows.

      The color you gave #6633FF could be just as much blue as it is purple. So I would start with these values: C=78 M=67 Y=0 K=0 I know you will be disappointed with the brightness, but I would keep the Cyan values above the Magenta values to keep from shifting to purple. I have a blog article about true blue in print you might be interested to read. I hope this helps!

  3. Thanks for your reply Robert, yes I’d read about brightness & the effects of different media, and of course there isn’t really a stock answer to converting the numbers. But the CMYK you suggest looks a good idea which I’ll try out later. Of course I may have to give in and opt for a purple instead of blue! At least I’ll know it can be printed! Many thanks.

  4. I found this page while trying to answer what seems to be a simple question: what blue colors in RGB will have similar appearances in CMYK, or are in-gamut for both my RGB display color space and a CMYK printer color space. I know – not simple! I’m a software developer trying to get smart about color management. I am trying to calibrate my retina MacBook Pro with a i1Display Pro, and am working on developing a color-managed workflow in CS6, mostly with InDesign. At the moment I’m trying to find a nice blue (like navy blue or royal blue) that will print well (not purple, not grayish…) when submitted as a CMYK PDF. I don’t have an ICC profile or know what the output device will be yet. Color is surprisingly complex and difficult. I really need a Pantone Color Bridge. I’m trying to make proofs on a desktop inkjet. Interestingly, in adjusting a blue slider in a rgb color space color picker at a given brightness, in the approximately 200 RGB steps between what appeared to be the darkest and lightest values, I could only visually see five gradations in the CMYK equivalent color box. Hal B., Corvallis OR

    1. Your best bet is to decide on the printer or final output and allow them to produce proofs for you. Most printers have an ICC profile you can download and use while you’re putting your projects together.

      With that information, I would start with C=100 M=20 Y=0 K=0 for royal blue and C=100 M=60 Y=0 K=40 for navy blue and make adjustments from there. Good luck to you!

  5. What would be the best CMYK values to print a lime green. I initially tried 40, 0, 100, 0, but my client wasn’t happy. She thought it looked too much like Granny Smith apple green. I told her that what she sees on screen will never match what’s printed. Any suggestions of how to match a slightly better lime green?

    1. That is a tough color to achieve with a conventional CMYK print unfortunately. You could try going C=30 M=0 Y=100 K=0 for a more yellowish color. The best idea, if you have an option, would be to use a Pantone Spot color. Good luck!

  6. Hi there, I am trying to achieve a red wine, burgandy color. When I print it appears very dull and almost brown. The color on screen that I like is c: 29, m: 100, y: 85 k: 37. Any recommendations? Thanks!

    1. Generally speaking your colors on screen will often be brighter than what can be produced in print. Your options are to make sure that you are printing on the brightest substrate possible and sometimes choosing a gloss finish instead of matte can help with the perception of brightness. Another option would be to pull back on the values for each color in the CMYK combination you provided. Good luck!

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