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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Commercial Printing: Manipulating Color Value for the Best Effect

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I recently discovered an exceptional commercial printing textbook that focuses exclusively on color. Needless to say, my fiancee and I found it at our favorite thrift store. The print book is entitled Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers, and it was written by Linda Holtzschue. It’s accessible and comprehensive. If you can get a copy online, it’s worth it.

Summarizing this book would take a book in itself, but since color holds such emotional power in graphic design (as well as in fine arts and also in real life), I’d like to share a few points of interest from this text. These include real life examples of my own based on the descriptions of color usage in the print book. I think you may find them useful in your own design work.

One Color Is Affected by Its Surrounding Background Color

I saw a calendar recently that included a striking photo of the sun as dusk approached. The sun was still bright yellow, but there was a lot of purple in the clouds extending outward on the page. What intrigued me was just how bright the sun looked. After all, it could not physically have been lighter than the white press sheet on which the image had been printed. But it did seem to radiate a brilliant light.

What this shows is that a color looks different depending on the colors that surround it. First of all, since yellow and purple are complementary colors (i.e., directly opposite on the color wheel), they vibrate visually when placed next to each other. In the case of the sunset in the calendar photo, the yellow of the sun and the purple of the surrounding sky, as complementary colors, seem to be more vibrant due to their proximity.

Moreover, the yellow of the sun in the calendar photo I saw appeared to be brighter than even the press sheet on which it had been printed because of the striking contrast in the value of the yellow and the surrounding purple. Value is the property of color related to its lightness or darkness, separately from its hue (the name of the color, like “blue” and “red”). While red and green (also complementary colors) are much closer to one another in value, purple and yellow are very different. A fully saturated purple is extremely dark, but a saturated yellow is extremely light. So, placed in close proximity, the yellow makes the purple look darker, and the purple makes the yellow look lighter.

If you read Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers, you will see examples of one color square surrounded by another color, as well as the same initial color with a different background. (Let’s say a light green surrounded by either blue or orange.) The same color (in the center) can look very different depending on whether the background is orange or blue. It can look lighter or darker, for instance. You can even make two different green swatches (two slightly different hues) look the same depending on the colors of their backgrounds.

So how does this affect you in real life, you may ask. If you’re an interior designer, for example, and you choose a neutral gray carpet for a room, you may find that depending on the other colors in the room, the neutral gray carpet may appear to have a color cast. It therefore helps to understand the properties and behavior of color and also to be alert, in case you or your client perceives such a color cast.

Needless to say, there’s a lot of science, optics, and commercial printing technology referenced in Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers regarding colors in proximity to one another. If you can get this print book, you may find this information interesting. If not, it still helps to know the cardinal rule: Colors look different based on their surroundings.

Type on a Background

Overprinting colored type on a colored background is similar to the aforementioned topic, and it’s therefore something to fully understand when designing for custom printing.

Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers includes a swatch of orange with blue type surprinted over the background to illustrate this point. The rule of thumb in Holtzschue’s print book is that value (lightness vs. darkness) rather than hue (the named color) determines the readability of such type. Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers actually includes three separate orange swatches (same hue) overprinted with light, medium, and dark type.

The lightest version of the blue text is the same value as the orange background. It is therefore almost completely unreadable. The medium version of the blue is better, but my aging eyes still find reading the text difficult. More than a few words, and the designer would have lost my interest. (And in an ad, the advertiser might have lost my purchase.)

As in a famous fairy tale about bears, the third option, the dark blue, is “just right.”

So what can we learn? First of all, separately from the fact that two colors are composed of the four process colors and therefore may include common elements (which complicates matters), the best way I know to predict the readability of colored type on a colored background is to trust your eyes, mention your concern to your printer, and request a proof.

If I were making decisions such as those shown in the three options in Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers, I’d print a an inkjet proof. Then I’d decide visually which value of the blue is readable on the orange. I’d also ask the printer for advice, and I’d look very closely at the printer’s contract proof prior to final printing. Or I’d take the safest route and print black type on the orange background.

Needless to say, the takeaway from this example is that the readability of type printed in color depends on the contrast of value between the text and the background.

How Color Translates to Value

Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers includes six images of birds and four images of butterflies in one of its discussions on color values. So this is actually related to the other examples I have cited above.

More specifically, the birds are printed side by side in green and red, orange and blue, and yellow and purple. Interestingly enough, each of these pairs contains two complementary colors (opposites on the color wheel). Furthermore, all six images appear to be “coordinated” visually. They go together. They appear to be six different colored images of the same bird (a simple black-and-one-color rendering).

But if you read the accompanying text, you’ll learn that (as noted earlier in this article) colors distributed around the color wheel have different values. At full saturation (intensity, color purity), the birds would appear different and might compete or even clash visually. Some would be lighter in value and others would be darker. They certainly would not feel coordinated.

Therefore, the print book presents the birds’ colors at different levels of saturation to make the color values consistent. For instance, the yellow bird appears to be of the same value as the other colored birds because the yellow is fully saturated, but the purple is more subdued (less intense, less saturated). Therefore, the purple bird actually has the same value as the yellow bird. Interestingly enough, the green and red birds are almost equal in value, so they are equally saturated, and the blue and orange colors seem to be in more of a middle ground (not as similar in value as red and green, but not as different as yellow and purple).

So what do we learn from this? If you want an even, coordinated effect, consider adjusting the saturation of the color (not the hue) to vary its value. And the way to reduce saturation is to add gray or the complement of the color.

(This means that, at least in one color model, the three variables are hue, saturation, and brightness or value. If you do some research into this and other color models—ways of describing color in the commercial printing field–in your Photoshop documentation, you’ll find a wealth of information regarding their implications, benefits, and usage.)

Understanding Color: An Introduction for Designers includes one other set of images, four butterflies printed in black only. Like the birds noted above, they are simple line drawings with several tints of black added. Unlike the birds, in which color values have been adjusted to make all the birds appear to be alike, the value distribution in the black and white butterflies is all different. It’s beautiful. It’s an interesting effect. But each of the four butterflies, unlike the six birds, looks different from all of the others. What you can learn from this is that you can alter the viewer’s perception based on whether the values of repeated images are different or the same, and you can alter the value of a color by varying its saturation while maintaining its hue.

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