Four-Color Process and Spot Color Printing

In News by Lynn Pechinski

Printing is often considered complicated for people who don’t work with printers regularly. Some of the most often asked questions are about printing in full color versus spot color; printing digitally versus offset printing. When printing on paper or the ubiquitous tee shirt, what is the best option for a branding or promotional event project? Many times the artwork graphics have already been designed before the job is presented to the printer. It is our job to create the artwork or recreate the artwork in preparation for the printer.

When it comes to stock paper and apparel printing, one major decision is to select between spot or four-color process printing. Both these processes are common; they produce vibrant images. Here is some information to help you make the best decision for your printing process and creative graphics.

Four-Color Process


In four-color process printing, all the colors are represented and printed in dots using process color inks. These colors include Cyan (C), Yellow (Y), Magenta (M) and Black (K). All four of these colors are laid down on a paper or apparel in a dotted pattern. When the job is done right, it will translate into a full spectrum of colors.

If your project design consists of full-color photographs, four-color process would be the necessary option. The best way to approximate the full range of colors variations is to use CMYK inks. Four color process is digital printing and is typically more cost effective especially when printing in smaller quantities. Take a look at some images in your favorite magazine or weekly newspaper. If you look closely, you will find that it mostly constitutes of tiny dots connected together. Although there are four distinct colors, but jointly they form a wide range of hues.

Spot Color


Spot color is different from four color process as each color printed is individual and mixed separately before printing. The Pantone Matching System (PMS) is the industry standard when it comes to spot-color formulas.

Solid PMS colors are ideal for branding materials, such as a company logo, since they are likely to produce a more consistent outlook across different types of media. Simply put, these are any single color one can make use of and are identified by their name, such as “Pantone 400 C”.

When printing specialty logo designs, some companies require their logo be matched to a specific PMS color. Regardless of the printing process, PMS 186 Red will look the same no matter if it is printed on paper, cotton tee shirts, backpacks or pen barrels. Converting from a PMS to CMYK may produce uncertain results; the red may have more yellow mixed in resulting in a warmer red, more towards an orange color. Or, the digital approximation of red may have more cyan mixed in resulting in a cooler red, more towards magenta.

PMS or spot colors tend to be brighter and cleaner than the process colors. Process colors have a more translucent appearance. Spot colors are specific shaded formulas that reproduce consistently during printing instead of a fluctuating mix of process colors. If your project design needs true color consistency, spot color with a PMS color match is essential. Spot colors are also best for tiny type and miniature sized reverse printing.

Special Considerations for Custom Paper Printing


Particular attention should be given to your art files. If the project is digital, four color process, the artist should make sure all spot colors or PMS colors are converted to CMYK. Conversely, converting from CMYK to spot colors requires a specific color selection. Most artists take assistance from the Pantone Process Book (PPB) and a Pantone Formula Guide for solid coated and uncoated spot colors. A specific PMS color looks differently if the material is glossy paper versus a matte stock.

Special Considerations for Apparel Printing


If the apparel is to be printed, special care should be given to lay down and underbase of white color before applying the spot color desired to show for the finished project. Without an underbase, printing white on a red garment may show as a pink because the garment is showing through the ink. It is more costly to print white, light or pastel colors on dark garments because a reputable screenprinter knows to use an underbase to prevent the garment color bleeding through.

Consult an Expert


Any experienced marketer, graphic artist and printer will be able to make the best recommendation for your specific project. Having expert advice is worth the investment to assure your printed project looks good enough to carry your brand and image to the public. If you need help, call on 1st Straw Marketing, at 609-654-2576. We offer marketing experience, graphic design and print expertise on thousands of promotional products as well as printed materials from a trifold brochure to a highway billboard.