The vast majority of the time we all print on white media: white paper, white cardstock, and other neutral white surfaces. But what about printing white? Can modern printers print white and if not, why not? Read on as we explore color theory, printer design choices, and why white is the foundation of the printing process.

Today’s Question & Answer session comes to us courtesy of SuperUser—a subdivision of Stack Exchange, a community-driven grouping of Q&A web sites. Image by Coiote O.; available as wallpaper here.

The Question

SuperUser reader Curious_Kid is well, curious, about printers. He writes:

I was reading about different color models, when this question hit my mind.

Can the CMYK color model generate white color?

Printers use CMYK color mode. What will happen if I try to print a white colored image (rabbit) on a black paper with my printer? Will I get any image on the paper?

Does the CMYK color model have room for white?

The Answer

SuperUser contributor Darth Android offers some insight into the CMYK process:

You will not get anything on the paper with a basic CMYK inkjet or laser printer. The CMYK color mixing is subtractive, meaning that it requires the base that is being colored to have all colors (i.e., White) So that it can create color variation through subtraction:

White - Cyan - Yellow = Green
White - Yellow - Magenta = Red
White - Cyan - Magenta = Blue

White is represented as 0 cyan, 0 yellow, 0 magenta, and 0 black – effectively, 0 ink for a printer that simply has those four cartridges. This works great when you have white media, as “printing no ink” simply leaves the white exposed, but as you can imagine, this doesn’t work for non-white media.

If you don’t have a base color to subtract from (i.e., Black), then it doesn’t matter what you subtract from it, you still have the color Black.

[But], as others are pointing out, there are special printers which can operate in the CMYW color space, or otherwise have a white ink or toner. These can be used to print light colors on top of dark or otherwise non-white media.

You might also find my answer to a different question about color spaces helpful or informative.

Given that the majority of printer media in the world is white and printing pure white on non-white colors is a specialty process, it’s no surprise that home and (most) commercial printers alike have no provision for it.

Have something to add to the explanation? Sound off in the the comments. Want to read more answers from other tech-savvy Stack Exchange users? Check out the full discussion thread here.

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Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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