Have you ever seen color that looked great on your computer monitor, but when you printed it, it looked dark or bland? Or have you looked at paint swatches for hours, finally picked one, and when you put it on a wall, it looked awful? It’s a common problem, and one that we have to manage regularly. Here's a brief explanation of what's going on, what can be done about it. 

Red, Green and Blue lights combine to create colors on lit screens.

Red, Green and Blue lights combine to create colors on lit screens.


Color that we see on a monitor or TV is created by tiny Red, Green, and Blue (RGB) lights that are turned on or off, to blend together and give a visual impression of all of the visible colors. If you get a strong magnifying glass and hold it up to your screen, you can actually see the individual tiny lights. This is sometimes called “additive” color because these lights “add” their colors together. 

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK inks absorb light to create colors on printed materials. 

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and blacK inks absorb light to create colors on printed materials. 


Color that we see on a printed item, such as a business card, book, or newspaper, is created by combinations of tiny ink dots — usually Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, or blacK (CMYK) — on a surface (usually paper). With a strong magnifying glass, you can see these dots, too. When a light source (sun, lamp, etc.) hits the printed item, the ink pigments absorb some of the light, so that only certain wavelengths of visible colors are reflected back to our eyes, giving a visual impression of certain colors. Fabric dyes, paint, and other applied pigments do the same thing. This is sometimes called “subtractive” color because these pigments “subtract” certain wavelengths of light to give us the color we see. 



Unfortunately, colors created with light cannot be exactly duplicated with inks on paper, fabric/thread dyes, paint, or other pigments and materials. Even when manufacturers come close, printed and painted colors will look completely different under different lights (fluorescent vs. sunshine), and on different materials (paper vs. metal). Industries like ours that need to be able to reproduce exact colors have developed systems to standardize light combinations, ink mixes, paint formulas, and dyes. 

PANTONE® Color matching system

One of the most commonly-used systems was developed by a company called Pantone. Pantone is a color technology leader, providing color systems that match colors across a variety of industries and light/pigment technologies. This means that by starting with a color chosen from a Pantone swatch book or installed from a design software plugin, we are going to have the best chance for matching that color consistently, from our desk to a printer across the country. It also means a logo color will be readily identifiable, whether it’s on a website, printed on a business card, transferred onto a vehicle, or embroidered on a hat. 


Depending on where your color will be used, you will want to start with something like a Pantone color, to make sure it can be matched as closely as possible, across a wide range of applications. We have Pantone swatch books with thousands of colors to choose from, and Pantone makes more all the time. If you have a color in mind, we can match it as closely as possible, and it will look great on your screen AND when you print it out.