When it comes to printing and color, there are many factors to consider before ever getting started. Perhaps you’ve got a fabric you need printed, but have no clue about the technicalities of color and no clue where to start.

First, there are two primary types of color printing: they’re called CMYK and Pantone®.

Understanding CMYK color

If you can think back to grade school when you learned about your primary colors of yellow, red and blue, you’ve got a good start for understanding how CMYK works.

You’d mix those three primary colors to get an array of secondary colors (purple, orange, etc.) CMYK is similar, but instead of yellow, red and blue, these colors are referred to as cyan (C), magenta (M), yellow (Y), and black (K – the ‘K’ stands for key, a printing term).

These colors are mixed together in different percentages to achieve thousands of color variations. Because of this method, digital printing can offer you a vast range of color options. However color may vary from one company to another.

Understanding the Pantone Matching System

Unlike CMYK, Pantone uses a standardized color reproduction system referred to as the PMS color process (Pantone Matching System).
 Each Pantone color (sometimes called spot color) is prescribed a specific identification number. This system allows you to take your Pantone color to any non digital printer on the planet and have it come out the exact same hue, tint, shade, etc. This is especially helpful for companies with very specific brand colors (think “Home Depot Orange” or “Coca-Cola Red”).

Using Pantone takes all the guess work out of color identification and allows you to keep a consistent brand image no matter where you’re printing your materials from. However, because the PMS involves a predetermined set of identified colors, your options are somewhat more limited than CMYK. You cannot select any color you like and decide to have it “Pantone printed.” Also you cannot digitally print Pantone colors that are outside of the CMYK Gamut array.

Rather, you’d choose from a selection of Pantone colors. Think of this as the same process as picking out a paint color from a hardware store. You select from a range of shades available to you, and the proper mix is made to create that exact color.

Will my printing method have anything to do with choosing CMYK or Pantone?

Only in regard to digital printing. Most Pantone colors cannot be printed digitally due to limitations with digital printers. However, when it comes to offset printing, you have the liberty to use either CMYK or Pantone.

RGB: How digital color makes it to fabric

RGB is worth mentioning as you’ve most likely come across this term in any print/color research you’ve done. Like CMYK, RGB is an acronym for colors red, green and blue. RGB is used for digital rendering and can have issues when being reproduced with a CMYK or Pantone process.

RGB values range from 0 to 255. The CMYK color model is a subtractive color model, used for print. Printers print with CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black) ink; no matter what color model your digital file is, it will be converted to CMYK in order to be printed.

As you can see below, the CMYK color gamut is the smallest gamut available within visible color gamuts. Therefore, not all colors that are visible can be achieved using CMYK colors.

You see the RGB color space all the time – you are looking at it right now. Anything that you see that is digital – from TVs to your smartphone to the computer you’re looking at right now – use this space. RGB color uses pixels to make colors, and it is entirely digital. It is pretty amazing that just three colors can be used to replicate a huge range of color, and for most applications it isn’t even noticeable but when it comes to printing, RGB colors can wreak havoc if you aren’t prepared.

RGB can be converted to CMYK if you ever decide you want to print the digital assets you’ve been using. You’ll need software like Photoshoptop to convert RGB into something CMYK.

Do you have questions we didn’t cover? Wondering whether your project needs CMYK, Pantone colors, or some combination of the two? Contact our friendly and knowlegable support staff for help.

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