Why does the K stand for black in CMYK?

CMYK is a subtractive color model that is used in color printing, and it refers to cyan, magenta, yellow, and black for the inks used in color printing.

The “K” in CMYK is understood to be the key since in four-color printing cyan, magenta, and yellow printing plates are aligned with the black plate which is the key. In other words the other colors are setup in relation to the black which is thus the "key" to the process. The fact that it is subtractive means that in the CMYK process the color results are achieved by masking colors on a lighter background. Often this background is white and the color may be masked either partially or completely, depending on the color desired.

CMYK is often used for printing in four color process. Thus people who desire this type of printing will often set up their artwork in the CMYK format. Typically using a design program such as Adobe Illustrator. The other common setup for colors, RGB, stands for Red, Green, Blue and is frequently used for screen printing in solid spot colors.

Some people think that the K in CMYK represents the last letter of the word black and that B isn't used because B was already taken by blue. This is a good way to remember what the letters stand for however this is not the actual origin of the abbreviation.

Knowing whether or not to set up your artwork using the CMYK model or the RGB model will depend largely on your desired end results. As stated CMYK is typically used for four color process printing and RGB is typically used for spot color printing. Many printers also have a preference of formats so when it doubt it's good to check with your printer to see if they have a preference.

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