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Are your colors right? - SPSI Inc.

Are your colors right?

Color is always a big part of what we do as screen printers and having a conversation with our customers on color, can be tricky. Color is at the heart of what we do as reproduction artists.

Correct color communication is key, making sure you and the customer are talking about the same shade of ‘cardinal red’ is paramount to achieving that elusive reverie of a happy customer.

The default system for the longest time has been Pantone, with books, chips and electronic libraries widely used in our industry.

In a statement that confused many users, Adobe quoted:
"Standardized pre-loaded Color libraries, also known as Pantone Color books, will be phased out of Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop in software updates released after August 16, 2022."

Customers who rely on Pantone colors in their creative workflows will need a Pantone license via the Pantone Connect plugin available on Adobe Exchange.

Many are upset by this change and the real reason is as hard to match as pantone 807u, Adobe say that the licensing model changed and Pantone say that Adobe libraries were no longer accurate. We may never know the real reason, but the fact remains that the most widely used color matching system now requires a subscription to continue using.

The accuracy of using a standardized color system has been significant in print reproduction, when the customer has a book in his hands that accurately matches the book in your hand ( unless it’s the one from the shop floor that has dubious stains and the occasional page missing). We can guarantee accuracy: disclaimer for lighting and perception.

The Pantone book has become the staple in every print shop, even when someone decided to put the colors in chromatic order and printed the index so small that people like me with Mr Magoo glasses can’t decide if it’s a 6 or an 8!, we still stand by the bible that is the swatch book.


The typical life of a new shiny  Pantone book is almost the same in every print shop. The designer decides he needs a new one as its been 11 months and 28 days since he last got one, he orders a pack and gets the set of Uncoated (U) and Coated (C), the uncoated version goes straight into the drawer next to the last five year’s worth of U books and the Pantone home interiors harmony book that was bought by mistake!

The 12 month old book now begins its journey to the shop floor.

First port of call for this pre-loved edition of the color bible is the Print Managers office, our beloved PM swaps out his old book that has become dog eared but is still clean as no one is allowed t use it except him.

The PM’s old book then makes its way to the lead printer, the guy on the shop floor who really keeps everything moving, his only reward is a lack of a social life, plastisol in his car and a nearly new pantone book.

The Lead Printers book which has pages missing and all the yellows from 100 to 107 look the same due to an unfortunate pigment concentrate incident, is passed to the girl in the ink room. It’s not like she can be trusted with a new book! Most of her best swatches are visible on her work dungarees!

Now that we have a color book we need to translate it into a printable ink.

Each ink manufacturer has invested heavily into a pantone matching system (PMS) this is a series of recipes according to the ink type. These systems are more complex than we give them credit for!

With over 2000 pantone colors ( and it seems new ones being invented every day) it’s almost impossible for the ink companies to formulate every color, printed through every mesh onto every substrate.

Most companies will use a mathematical computation and historical mixing records.

When we look at the pantone book we note that there are 7 swatches per page, the true color is usually in the centre with additions of white going up the page and additions of black going down the page. This would explain why colors that were close matches to each other, where often 7 numbers away from each other. The introduction of chromatic order and new colors has seen these phenomena disappear lately.

The ink manufacturers that utilize cloud based recipe systems have been using us the printers as formulators for accuracy, with the option to submit a color query we are fine tuning the recipes as we use them.


Water-based systems can be a little more challenging, the option of several base types and lots of changing substrates, with white base or without, can seriously affect the shade and strength of a color.

I find most water-based printers have a unique to them library of tried and tested recipes. Most using the manufacturers recipe as a starting point and adjusting to fit substrate and coverage.

 I have my favorites, and it’s all personal preference. I still think the inks are getting weaker as the colors get cleaner, and anyone that has tried to get 280c blue or Reflex Blue to look good on a white base will back me up on this.

The easiest and best solution was to run a swatch system that we send to the customer, rename the colors to ‘Macy Gray’ ‘Barry White’ ‘C-lo Green’ ‘Aloe Blacc’ ‘James Brown’ ‘Green Day’ the list goes on, please feel free to add your own ! asking the customer to pick from a closed list in a similar way we ask to pick from HTV or embroidery thread will eliminate any bad mixing as it just so happens that our bespoke swatch list matches the off the shelf inks we buy that are ready for use.

Of course now that every prospective customer has a copy of illustrator and owns a pantone book, the chances of limiting the choice to an easy mix are very slim. It is more likely they will pick the new 5,000,000 range color that means we all have to buy new pantone books and the hand me down process starts all over again.

I believe that Pantone have made an error by not including swatches inside design software, but what do I know? I just pull ink through holes for a living.

If the customer does not supply a reference, it’s a dangerous slope! I would let the design software pick a color from its display values and tell the client that is what we will use and please check.

Trying to match from a monitor is a big error as all monitors display differently! 

Correct lighting is key in color matching and the books all have two brown squares at the back to check for good lighting conditions.

A light box is the only way to control variations in opinion! TL84 was the light tube of choice as it was used in all M&S stores around the world. This made it the standard light to check colors under. Now we have LED lights that emit different temperature light and its important to check in a controlled environment.

Article written by Tony Palmer, Palmprint
Tony has more than 30 years experience in garment decoration ranging from manual screen printing on hand carousels to the operation of multi-color automatic presses.  Specifically Tony is an expert on MHM Automatics, Tesoma, Exile Spyder, Douthitt CTS, Zentner, and numerous manufacturers of textile decorating equipment. 

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