Skip to: Navigation | Content | Sidebar | Footer

Weblog Entry

Colour Matching

March 05, 2007

I’ve never satisfactorily solved the colour matching problem while working on the print jobs I do every few months or so. A few years back I wrote up some colour tips I’ve learned, but it doesn’t exactly mean I’ve gotten any better at it in the mean time.

Pantone Swatches

Browsing through the local specialty art book store the other day, I came across the Process Color Manual, a colour guide for CMYK that nicely fills a gap in my collection. It’s basically a formula guide of printed swatches and their specific CMYK values. It doesn’t cover every combination in existence, but at 24,000 possible values, it’s good enough for my needs.

Sure I could have gone the Pantone route as well and paid a bunch more, but, compare: 24,000 colour selections on one type of paper, vs. 1,114 colour selections on three types of paper. Given my modest print needs, I’ll save the extra money for some other rainy day.

So after discovering this book, I’m curious now — does anyone know if there’s a (legal) equivalent for spot colour? I’m guessing Pantone’s system is all sorts of proprietary and anyone trying to release their own book of the same would be sued out of existence, but, maybe not.

Mike D. says:
March 05, 16h

Investing in the standard set of four Pantone guides is worth the price. Last time I checked, it was a couple hundred bucks for the spot coated, spot uncoated, spot matte, and process.

Don’t fall for the “make sure to renew your set every two years” bullshit, but the initial purchase is worth the outlay… especially now that we don’t use CRTs anymore which were much closer to colorometrically accurate.

Dave S. says:
March 05, 17h

“Investing in the standard set of four Pantone guides is worth the price. Last time I checked, it was a couple hundred bucks for the spot coated, spot uncoated, spot matte, and process.”

I’m seeing that set going for close to $500 this side of the border, and given the relative paucity of my print projects (three or four a year), it’s been too hard to justify thus far.

Mike D. says:
March 05, 17h

Weird, I can’t seem to find the four-piece set on Pantone’s site right now, but here’s the two spots:

$89 –

… and the two processes:


Might be a little pricier with the Canuck funnymoney though. :)

Dave S. says:
March 05, 17h

Oh, hmm. That first one looks like it might suit the bill. This is the one I was seeing, it goes for $300 USD -

March 05, 18h

I usually get by with the Pantone Solid to Process swatch (now called Pantone Color Bridge). If you only get one swatch (especially if you do limited print work), it’s the one to get. It shows Solid AND Process for each color (the Process is just the closest CMYK equivalent to the Spot). Check it out:

March 05, 18h

You will never get the vividness of certain spot colours with a CMYK colour equivalent, and sometimes it’s just not practical. Imagine the difficulty of printing a .25pt line with four colours - registration can be a bitch! And printing CMYK in some cases might be more expensive.

You could use your CMYK book to find the colour combinations you like, and then borrow your printer’s PMS books to match. Not ideal, and possibly inconvenient, but could get you through until you want to make the purchase.

Dave S. says:
March 05, 18h

“You could use your CMYK book to find the colour combinations you like, and then borrow your printer’s PMS books to match.”

*Exactly* what I did today.

March 06, 10h

I am in the same boat since I do not do too much print work but it is normally a pain once I get a proof from a printer. Deliberating whether I should buy the essentials set -

Nicole says:
March 07, 10h

I got lucky with my pantone swatchbook– I mentioned to a printer rep that I didn’t have one and had to go to the library every time I needed to choose a spot color. Next time I saw him he gave me an old one that they were probably going to throw out! Even though it’s old, it’s still more accurate than the colors on my monitor.

Johan says:
March 08, 13h

Dave: try out this book about colour management.
It is loaded with terrific stuff.

March 10, 17h

After many years in print production and design, I’ve learn a few “dirty little secrets” about color matching:

While a Pantone guide is a must, please realize that even Pantone considers it a “guide” only. Different ink manufacturers’ colors vary, as do the mixes that printers themselves may make. Press conditions and even the press operator make a difference.

But perhaps the largest variable is the paper itself. If you need an exact match (which is probably impossible anyway), you’ll need to have the ink specially mixed to the paper (or change the values for cmyk, assuming the printing “system” is calibrated). And sometimes even that is impossible due to metamerism.

I agree that you don’t need to get a new book every year or so – unless you leave it open near a window. Then you’ll need a new one in a couple of days. (Been there, done that!). Keep it in a drawer.

March 14, 14h

The Pantone solid-to-process guide/color bridge is an essential tool IMO, being an in-house designer I’ve had little need for other guides, and no, I don’t replace it every 2 years :)

A friend of a friend I know worked for Pantone, and I understand they have a ridiculously complex, fancy press set-up to produce those swatch books, so that they can print a multitude of inks in a single run. Because of that, it’s probably tough to find a “less expensive” spot color guide.

srikant says:
March 15, 04h

you’ll need to have the ink specially mixed to the paper (or change the values for cmyk, assuming the printing “system” is calibrated

Marc S says:
March 15, 18h

I used to work in a print house and now run a small design studio and in my experience it’s impossible to create certain Pantones out of process.

The Colour Bridge swatches are well worth their money but always ask the printers opinion about the breakdown. Some of the colours (and it seems to be the darker ones) tend to have high black values. If you’re running up around 80% or more then think about knocking it back and upping the other colours. Because the press operator can tweak the amount of ink going on each plate, he’ll have an easier job (and you a better result) if he’s got more room to manouver, if he has to knock the black down then you might find that the black points of images and solid black text will be affected.

dan says:
March 17, 16h

I’m with Jason. Solid to Process is really nice to have and not that expensive.

Ben says:
March 25, 05h

Back when I was doing printing at college we were using a number of different Spot matching systems, Pantone and a few others. I can’t remember the names, but I do know that they exist, it’s just Pantone has become the standard for matching. As for the copyright side of it, as far as I know they’ve only got legal rights to the colour names and not the actual colours themselves… I could be wrong though.

I’ll have to have a look out for that book though, it looks nice.

Sven says:
March 26, 04h


for german customer: I would like to recommend this pantone sets:

In my opinion a good quality and fair price (this posting is not spam, i´m not the owner of the site ;-) )

Greets from germany

March 26, 10h

Pantone tells you to buy a new set every year, and some people do. Last year’s book tend to show up on ebay for pretty cheap. Often they’ll have a set of holes drilled through them but other in great shape.

+1 on Solid-to-process

+100 on “Remember that is just a guide”

Jack Smith says:
March 31, 20h

Spot color and PMS swatch books are a relic of the past and should only be used in projects where Offest printing is the the final output and to drive home the point - offest where it is known a line screen of 300 or better is being used and metal plates capable of holding fine dots are used.

Some of the most popular spot colors which can be lumped into groups like the candy apple reds and reflex blues and rich mexican blues should only be mixed as ink and applied with fifth and sixth plates if the budget allows for it.

If one is using a digital printing process PMS guides should be used only as guide post one tries to get close to…

Due to the shear number of digital printers on the market and whose profile set is used if at all, which reandering engine is used and then throwing in the real physical DPI of the print file rendered by the RIP - which happens after you leave your file off at the digital printer results will not only vary but reduce many clients to tears.

With the large increase in large format graphics that cover buildings and buses these days a 2% to 5% change in one or two of the colors in CMYK, although clearly seen in a swatch book won’t even show on a digital press printign at 20 or 50 DPI.

Profile clipping and dirt introduced by 6 and 8 color heads many times makes it even worst.

It would seem those extra heads still spray fine amounts of ink even though Photoshop might say there is no cyan in such and such - but a close look with a glass shows a 2% tint of cyan which can not be removed - because the printer maker does not know a better way to prevent head damage due to clogged ink jets.

Finer printers like epsons running in the 600 to 1200 DPI range may have large and beautiful color range but without a way to control six or eight colors in the seperation stage - something Adobe seems very timid to even consider putting in Photoshop -despite anything they may claim- the degree of control needed to render these kinds of colors is not there.

For what it is worth try this approcah on a critical project:

For each digital press type request the different printers to print out that color chart of process colors the RIP vender supplies on the DVD/CD that installed it - from the digital press you are going to use and on the final paper type.

Use than chart to comapre to the PMS book and realize close made have to be good enough.

Josh Pyles says:
April 01, 00h

I used to use Process (CMYK) color a lot, but I can tell you right now that just because you have a color that looks like it’s firey red in that CMYK book, it probably will be a bit different on every printer you print on. Most printers and print shops have slight variations in the way that the colors are processed. Using a Pantone reference book works alright, but if you must continue using CMYK, try the Pantone Huey. It is a great monitor color calibration device, costs less than 100 bucks and gets your colors a lot closer to print.

Michael C. Reilly says:
April 06, 11h

A reputable print shop should be “fingerprinting” their equipment. At every step of the process, a certain amount of “dot gain” is introduced. When the image setter burns the negatives, the dots may come out a bit larger than needed. When you burn those images to plates, the light will flare outward a bit enlarging them more. And it is natural to the print process that the pressure of the ink transfer from rubber blanket to paper sheet will cause dot gain as well. More dot gain will be evident in uncoated papers than on coated ones. Bigger dots absorb more light and we see a different color as a result. After determining how much dot gain is added at every step, your printer can develop a color profile that is applied on the computer during the output stage that will compensate. It is important that there be a profile for each imagesetter/film/plate/press/ink/paper combination used. Obviously this can be a time consuming process, but it’s critical to getting the expected output. (It is also why platesetters are handy because they cut out many steps in the process which reduces dot gain error and reduces the time to getting the job in registration on press.)

For digital output devices it is even more difficult because the control mechanisms are not as durable as in commercial offset printing. There are entirely new concerns as well. For instance, on toner based systems, the electrical characteristics of the paper stock itself play a critical role and moisture content of the paper will affect those characteristics. But the same fingerprinting process should be possible here. Although the print drivers for large format inkjet may not support tweaking, it should be possible to keep those settings consistent, measure the resulting output with a colorimeter, compare it to what was desired, and modify the files in Photoshop accordingly.

What someone mentioned about having high black values in process color is known as “grey component replacement”. In theory, if you had perfect cyan, magenta and yellow inks and printed 100% coverage of each down on a sheet, you should get black. We call this process black, often because it’s not actually black, but closer to brown. This occurs because while the cyan should absorb only cyan light, it might absorb a tiny amount of magenta or yellow as well. (That’s why there are many variations of the same colors available, cyan is cyan, but its error varies by formulation.) The same for the other colors. This induces error into the system. It also means that the ink density on the sheet is very high which can cause problems in the print process with picking, ghosting and sheet-to-sheet transfer in the delivery stack. So there is a process by which the computer can determine how much of the C, M, Y inks it can subtract and replace with black (K) to achieve the same, but often truer result. Less ink density means less chance of ink transfer problems and a lower cost because you’re applying one ink instead of 3 to achieve a black appearance.

..a web developer whose printing degree comes in handy once in a while

Justin says:
April 18, 11h

I love how work looks printed, but I always run into the same problems I’m sure you are having. I’ve been using Color Theory/Harmony/Communication books to see how a specific CMYK value looks printed, but thanks for another reference as it certainly looks more comprehensive.