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Advice about ... printing colours

Colours and colour matching/consistency can be a very complicated part of any branding process. This is true of print on paper and even more so when printing on non-paper materials such as fabrics, plastics, metals and ceramics.

There are two main techniques for defining and printing colour.

Pantone (or spot colours)

According to Wikipedia ...

“The Pantone Colour Matching System is largely a standardised colour reproduction system. By standardising the colours different manufacturers [or printers] in different locations can all refer to the Pantone system to make sure colours match without direct contact with one another.

One such use is standardising colours in the CMYK process. The CMYK process is a method of printing colour by using four inks—cyan, magenta, yellow and black. The vast majority of the world's printed material is produced using the CMYK process, and there is a special subset of Pantone colours that can be reproduced using CMYK. Those that are possible to simulate through the CMYK process are labelled as such within the Pantone guides.

However, most of the Pantone system's 1,114 spot colours cannot be simulated with CMYK but with 13 base pigments (15 including white and black) mixed in specified amounts.”

Examples of Pantone colours are 'Red 032 C' and '100 C'.

Due to the complexity of their composition, colours defined by Pantone numbers are very precise but are related to what they will be printed. So for example a Pantone numbered colour printed on paper would not be identical should it be printed on fabric. A different numbered colour would be needed to get a better match.

There are a version of Pantones that are used for computer displayed images, such as on websites, but these provide a low level of consistency as computer screens vary greatly in their rendition of colours and are user configurable so can be altered inconsistently.

CMYK (or process or four-colour)

CMYK is the most commonly used colour printing process in the type of printer hardware that you might use at work or at home (laser, ink jets and bubble jets).

It works by over-printing the same area with differing amounts of each of the four colours (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black) to create the final colour. White is assumed to be the background colour, and is created by printing no ink.

The example below shows the different print passed for each of the four colours and how the final image would look.

four colour print passes
Four colours - print passes

finished four colour print
Final Image

CMYK is not as precise a way of defining colours for printing even though the ratio of each can be precisely defined. The imprecision comes from the consistency of the four colours not being guaranteed between ink manufacturers, inaccuracies in the printer itself in terms of delivering the correct ratios precisely enough and differences in the paper itself.

However, for most general business purposes CMYK is considered good enough.

Screen printing onto fabrics and other materials uses the CMYK approach in that up to four 'screens' are created each of which matches one of the C, M, Y or K colours. Each screen then passes the ink onto the fabric in the right ratio to form the final full coloured image.

But this process can pose problems and even though we talk about just four colours, because of the movements that can occur in screen print, some designs will require anything up to 10-12 colours to get the right visual result.

The big problem is that even the slightest movement of the garment during the ink application can cause a colour shift and give a 'blurred' result. This is why you will always find that a good screen printer will ask to see the artwork before pricing a “full colour print”.

How the number of colours affects cost

The number of colours needed to create the image makes a big cost difference to two of the production processes that we use - screen printing and heat transfers. This is because we have to create templates/screens for each of the colours needed, thus we incur additional time and material costs.

Both embroidery and dye-sublimation are costed according to other criteria, so are not affected by colour number choices.

To reduce production costs for screen printed or heat transferred items, it is advisable to investigate whether your logo/image can be reproduced in less than four colours. Sometimes reducing the number of colours can make the image more stylish and impactful, but other times only an accurate reproduction will be acceptable.

It is worth noting that shades of a C, M, Y, K colour don't count as different colours from a costing point of view.

If you are unsure about making colour choices for your branded items, then just give us a call. We'll be happy to talk you through the decision process and provide the different cost implications.

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