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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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Archive for the ‘Color Theory’ Category

Custom Printing: What Is the Difference Between CMYK and Pantone Colors?

Sunday, August 20th, 2023

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The Printing Industry Exchange Blog is #12 of the best 40 digital printing blogs, as selected by FEEDSPOT.

What is the difference between PMS match colors and 4-color process colors?

First of all, let’s step back for a moment. Color is a function of light and the interaction between the rods and cones in your eyes and the lighted subject you are observing. People see color differently, especially men and women, and if you cover one eye and then the other, you’ll see a slightly different hue with each eye. Also, if the light is different, the color will be different.

So color is quite subjective.

The number of distinct colors you can see is far greater in real life than the colors a computer display can reproduce (using red, green, and blue phosphors), and the RGB color gamut is much larger than the colors you can reproduce with colored toners or inks (the process colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black).

(You can find diagrams of each of these color spaces on Google Images. Many of these images show one color gamut superimposed over the others, showing the visible spectrum as being much larger than the CMYK color gamut.)

4-Color Process Offset and Digital Commercial Printing

In many cases this is not a problem. After all, on an inkjet printer or an offset press, the process colors will reproduce the majority of distinct hues.

The way an offset press (or a laser printing press) creates colors is to layer halftone screens of the process colors over one another at specific angles such that the halftone dots do not cover one another. Since the halftone dots are different sizes (the same number per square inch, in rows, but larger or smaller as needed for the four process colors to create–together–all manner of different hues).

Inkjet commercial printing works in a slightly different way. Inkjet printers spray more or fewer dots of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink (minuscule but all the same size) as needed to create—when seen together—all manner of hues. Unlike most but not all offset presses and most but not all laser printing presses, inkjet presses often include additional colors in their inkset. Perhaps this would include a light magenta and light cyan, or even a purple and a green, or a red and blue. The goal is to expand the number of colors the inkjet press can render.

To do this on a laser press involves adding more toners. For instance, you can add more liquid toners (very tiny particles of physical toner suspended in fuser oil) to the colors used on an HP Indigo press (and presumably other presses, such as the Kodak NexPress).

If you want to do the same thing on an offset press, however, you would need to use more inking units. For instance, instead of using a 4-color press with four inking units, you might need an 8-color press. You might use four of these color stations for the process colors (CMYK), and then you might add one or two PMS colors (which I will describe shortly) and perhaps a gloss varnish and a dull varnish.

Keep in mind that the 8-unit press would cost considerably more to run than the 4-unit press. So the price of your print job would go up. Moreover, not every commercial printing supplier would have an 8-color offset press, so this might limit your choice of custom printing vendors.

What Are PMS Colors?

Beyond the four process colors, which are laid over one another to produce multiple additional hues, there is a set of colors called PMS (or Pantone Matching System) colors. You can find samples of these in PMS books of various kinds. These match colors or spot colors, unlike the process color builds, are actually mixed (like a recipe for a cake). Companies specifically mix so many parts of one color (like Rubine Red) with so many parts of another color to achieve the exact hue you have chosen from one of the PMS color books.

One benefit of this system is that all custom printing suppliers across the globe can communicate the precise color they want using this agreed-upon standard, and all PMS 199s or 286s will look the same.

(If you use these books, it’s still always best to choose from printed samples in the books rather than from simulations of PMS colors on your computer monitor. Your color samples will be more accurate.)

Why Would You Want to Do This?

Usually, if you’re printing a color job on an offset press, the four process inks will be enough. You can produce brilliant color. You just can’t produce all of the brilliant colors in the visible spectrum. If you’re designing and custom printing a coffee-table art book including vivid oranges, violets, or greens, these colors in the printed job might not be as vibrant as you would like if you only use the process inks.

In that case, you can separate the color images onto more than four printing plates. In the late ‘90s I read about and saw examples of Hexachrome and High-Fidelity Color, which included extra colors like the green, orange, and violet noted above. In this case the separations might include halftones of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black plus “touch plates,” “bump plates,” or “kiss plates” using match green and match violet inks to enhance certain colors in specific areas of the photos.

Another way you can use additional PMS colors on an offset press is to print flat art (solid areas of color, screens, or type, for instance). This would be separate from the photos. That is, you can add a green PMS color as a background screen, or you can set the headlines of the text sections in a solid PMS color without needing to layer process inks over each other to do this.

A flat color, spot color, or match color (all of these are different names for the same thing) will yield much crisper type letterforms than 4-color type (a build of four colors) because there will be no halftone dots used to create the colored type. This would be especially useful if you want to set the text type in a dark gray, for instance, instead of black, since small type rendered in multiple 4-color process colors would be less crisp and harder to read than type printed in a single PMS color.

Another good reason to add PMS colors is to reproduce your corporate logo colors exactly and consistently. When I was an art director in the 1990s, the non-profit government education organization for which I worked included PMS 199 red and PMS 286 blue for it’s red and blue eagle logo in addition to the process colors used for the full-color photographs.

So another benefit of using match colors is their absolute consistency.

For instance, let’s say your job is a 16-page booklet. On the press sheet there would be eight pages on either side, with four across the top and four more pages immediately below these, plus the other eight pages on the back of the press sheet.

Let’s say your backgrounds on some of the pages include heavy coverage ink. Or maybe some have large photographs and some do not. Maybe the commercial printing pressman identifies a color cast in one of the photos and therefore adjusts the ink mix, adding more or less of one or more of the process inks. In the page layout (imposition) of four pages above four more pages on one side of the custom printing sheet, changing the ink composition to fix the colors in one of the large photos might change the appearance of the process color build on the page immediately below it.

If your background color (maybe a green color build behind all other graphic elements on every page) shifts due to the printer’s having adjusted the color to benefit one photo, that change would stand out like a sore thumb. Your background colors would no longer match. However, if you use a match color for all backgrounds on all pages in the 16-page booklet, you wouldn’t have this problem. All of the backgrounds, printed in the same extra color (as a solid PMS color rather than a CMYK build) would be absolutely consistent.

The same is true for your logo colors. These won’t vary from one logo image to another because the PMS colors are always the same.


PMS colors can also be used in duotones (images made up of halftone dots like four-color images but created with two inks rather than all four process colors). In this case you might want to use a black and a gray ink, or perhaps a black and a dark green ink, to add color to the image. In this example PMS match colors would be helpful, particularly since you could use the dark green color in both the duotone and elsewhere on the page, perhaps as a highlight color for the headlines of the text in the book you’re producing.

Unfortunately, though, if you’re creating duotones, you can’t really get an exact match when you’re proofing the colors. This is because almost all proofing devices are based on CMYK inks. Therefore, the only way to accurately proof them is on a small proofing press (i.e., by doing an actual, but very short, press run). I will also mention that drawdowns of PMS colors are useful (a colored ink smeared on the paper substrate of choice to give an approximation of the final look of the ink).

Sample PMS Books

Talk with your commercial printing vendor about buying Pantone sample books. The most useful of these is the PMS swatch book that shows all possible PMS colors. (This long and narrow book of color strips will probably comprise more than one volume.) With this swatch book you can select your PMS colors in good room light or sunlight from physical samples on paper rather than images on a computer monitor.

There are also books that show each Pantone Color with its closest CMYK build. This way you can see whether you can create an adequate version of a specific color using process inks, or whether you will need one or more additional PMS colors.

There are also books that show halftones in a particular color, as well as type surprinted on and reversed out of an image or a solid or a screen.

All of these give the designer an approximation of the final printed appearance of the piece she or he is designing.

Better to know what to expect before your printer puts ink on paper.

Custom Printing: One Print Client’s Approach to Color

Wednesday, August 31st, 2022

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I have a print brokering client I’ve mentioned before who produces a collection of 28 color swatch books, like PMS books, for selecting clothes and make-up based on complexion. She’s a fashionista, and her product is really her color system, not her print books. My client has developed a unique color system, and this system is scalable.

In addition to the small color swatch books my client reprints maybe three times a year, she has a collection of chin cards, 8.5” x 11” laminated cards with a little die-cut in the long side of each card. You can hold these under your chin and make your own decisions of which colors are right for you by looking in the mirror using my client’s guidelines. (This is my somewhat simplistic version of the process.)

My Client’s New Fabric-Printing Opportunities

Over the last few years my client—who has a large following—has attracted the interest of entrepreneurs in Europe who want to apply her color system to fabric printing (bolts of fabric) and garment printing (the clothes themselves). A great idea. This is very hot now. Perhaps these entrepreneurs will dye the background of the fabric one color and then add either inkjet or dye sublimation printing for the designs on the fabric, depending on the material substrate.

This week my client noted that she and her potential business partners were not sure how to communicate color to manufacturers. Initially, my client had chosen specific PMS colors for her color swatch book pages because of the precision and repeatability of the Pantone Matching System, not to mention that these colors are universally recognized by commercial printing suppliers.

Since her color swatch book system includes 28 distinct versions, many with repeats of various colors, my client had chosen to print her swatch books on an as-needed basis on high-end digital commercial printing equipment (such as the HP Indigo). Because of this my client had converted all of her colors to the nearest CMYK process builds. Percentage combinations of screens of these four colors came close enough (for my client’s needs) to simulating the 100+ specific colors distributed across the 28 separate color swatch books. And this way my client would not incur the huge cost of needing to print via offset lithography—instead of digital printing–using a huge number of PMS inks for a huge number of press runs (and for so few copies of each of the 28 master versions of the color swatch books).

(Keep in mind that custom printing ink companies formulate PMS, or Pantone Matching System, colors by mixing other colors–such as so many parts of Rubine Red or Rhodamine Red and so many parts of white.)

You can simulate the greater percentage of colors within the Pantone Matching System gamut with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black halftone screens laid over one another, but you can’t translate all PMS colors into matching—or even attractive—CMYK builds.

Why? Because the range of printable colors within the PMS color gamut is larger than the CMYK color gamut, just as the RGB color gamut (used for creating color with light–rather than pigment–on a computer monitor) is larger still, and the color gamut for visible light (i.e., colors distinguishable from one another by the human eye) is the largest of all.

You can find these different color gamuts superimposed over one another via Google Images. Such a composite, and visual, model will help clarify this concept.

Colors on Computer Monitors

So my client has needed to display her collection of proprietary colors online in recent years. Fortunately, there are online applications that will translate CMYK percentages to RGB percentages.

(Keep in mind that combining all subtractive colors—the CMYK colors of pigment–produces black, while combining all additive colors—the RGB colors of light on a computer monitor–produces white.)

Therefore, you can see that communicating color to another person (a commercial printing supplier or someone who dyes fabric, or a computer geek who writes computer applications in hexadecimal code) can be challenging. And this is becoming problematic for my client at the moment, since she needs to print consistent colors digitally for her color swatch books and her chin cards, include accurate color in her online materials, and potentially move into fabric printing and perhaps even cosmetics.

(And as noted above, once you bring computer monitors into the mix, you sometimes must also translate from RGB–red, green, blue–into hexadecimal code. Plus, you need to make viewing conditions consistent by limiting ambient light with a monitor hood and window coverings. And you need to standardize the monitor regularly with color calibration hardware and software. So the process becomes increasingly complex if you need precise color fidelity.)

Choosing Color for Fabric Printing

Now my client will need to translate her proprietary color system for selecting make-up, clothes, and hair coloring from ink on paper to fabric inks and dyes and possibly cosmetics as well, at some point.

Fortunately, computer design programs such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign have an ability to translate PMS colors into CMYK colors. You can even do this automatically when you distill a native InDesign file into a press-ready PDF. And I’ve also found online translators that convert PMS colors to both the nearest CMYK version for commercial printing and the nearest RGB version for display on a color-controlled, color-calibrated monitor.

A Final Approach to Color Choices

That said, I am still a firm believer in using one’s eyes and physical products (not a computer monitor) to make color decisions. So when my client asked me to talk with her prospective business partners in Athens, Greece, about how to proceed, this is what I said:

  1. Start with my client’s PMS colors, from which she developed her entire color swatch book system. Then match these as needed using CMYK and RGB percentages. All commercial printing suppliers will understand this color model. Plus my client’s offering to the business is her proprietary color system and the reasoning behind these color choices, not a specific physical product. In fact, if she goes on to make cosmetics after she makes colored garments, Pantone will still be the most universally understood color system.
  2. Over the years, PMS colors have expanded into metallics and pastels, and even their regular color system has been enhanced numerous times to include distinct, new colors. There are even special PMS books for plastics and now for fabrics (TPX colors, for instance). Pantone created and has maintained the original color system. Since their brand is very well regarded and their focus is solely on color, it is reasonable to expect that PMS colors will be as consistent as possible on both the original paper color chips and the new fabric color chips.
  3. That said, since fabric absorbs inks and dyes (and may change their perceived color in the process), and since the base color or tint of the fabric substrate may differ from that of the paper substrate, my client and her prospective business partners should request printed samples—on fabric—to ensure a match. They should not rely solely on computer translation algorithms.
  4. My client and her business partners should view physical-product color in 5000 degree Kelvin light–which is comparable to the color of sunlight–ideally with a neutral gray background to minimize color casts from any nearby color.
  5. My client and her business partners should remember that everyone sees color differently and that women see color better than men. In fact, if you cover first one eye and then the other and look at a color, it will look different to each of your individual eyes.

The Takeaway

I’m sure my client’s new business partners were exhausted after this discussion, as you may be. So I will simplify this. In your own design work, remember:

  1. Monitor colors are created with light. Almost everything else is created with pigment. These colors are not the same. Choose color from physical swatches (ideally a PMS book created within the last few years, since light changes the colors in these books over time), not from the monitor. Then use CMYK or RGB percentage numbers available in online translation programs or in Illustrator, InDesign, and/or Photoshop to simulate the colors as needed, depending on whether you’re creating a printed product or a product for online use.
  2. Remember that the tint of the substrate as well as its absorbency will change the color of the ink or dye printed on it.
  3. You will notice that Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign may use slightly different percentages of CMYK or RGB to simulate PMS colors. This is one reason that it’s always best to get a printed sample of the physical product you are creating. At that point you can use your eyes (and those of your coworkers) to decide whether the colors meet your expectations.

In the final analysis, trust your eyes.

Custom Printing: Diagnosing a Color Consistency Problem

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022

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A print consulting client of mine came to me this week with a problem. She had deigned an e-book cover and a poster (for a PowerPoint presentation) for one of her clients, and the background color of the image (shared by both) looked different on her monitor (light blue vs. a rose-tinted blue). So she came to me for help in resolving the issue. (more…)

Custom Printing: Adding Color in Product Design

Wednesday, March 9th, 2022

At this time of year there’s a lot of festive holiday color out there, in many cases created with light. Color is a powerful emotional hook for everything from a winter holiday scene to the interior design of a house to the hues in fabric for garments or even wall coverings and linens (again, interior design). We have both cultural and individual associations between certain colors and their meanings. We may even have strong memories that arise and affect our moods when we see certain colors (such as the colors of a Christmas, Hanukkah, or Yule scene). (more…)

Know Everything About Color Printing Service

Tuesday, July 27th, 2021

No one would not be impressed if they received colored business cards instead of the traditional pale white ones. Bright colors in the proper combination might help you get your desired outcomes. There is no alternative for real color business stationery, and you can now acquire the highest quality of these via internet services. There are several reasons why you should hire professional color printing online instead of relying on traditional methods. (more…)

Commercial Printing: Creating and Selecting Color for Graphic Design

Monday, June 28th, 2021

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When I look at the photo above, all I can say is, “Ahhhhhhhhh.” Nobody chooses color schemes better than nature. In fact, if I saw this image in a brochure for island travel, I’d buy a ticket and go. (more…)

Commercial Printing: Manipulating Color Value for the Best Effect

Sunday, June 20th, 2021

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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. (more…)

Color Printing Online Made Easy

Thursday, November 5th, 2020

It is hard to imagine any industry that can function without the services of color printing online. Whether it is a restaurant, automobile company, computer peripherals, or electronics store, all of them require color prints to make their products easily available to customers. (more…)

Custom Printing: Who Chooses the Color of the Year?

Monday, September 28th, 2020

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Who chooses the Color of the Year? I know these words are reminiscent of the Academy Awards. And now, the envelope please. The winner is chartreuse. (more…)

Commercial Printing: Thoughts on Color Reproduction

Sunday, September 13th, 2020

Color is tricky. Not only does everyone see it slightly differently (from my reading and experience, apparently women see color slightly better than men). Not only does color look different depending on surrounding light (color seen in sunlight differs from color seen under fluorescent light, which differs from color seen under regular incandescent light). But color even varies from what you see on your computer monitor to what your commercial printing supplier can provide in a print job. (more…)


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