Ed #5 Enhancing Color

Overview

“Less is more,” said Mies van der Rohe. But in the graphic arts, more is often better, especially when it comes to color. More color gives you more ways to communicate, more ways to make an impact and better ways to match the color of the original. And more is easier to get than ever before.

Conventional four-color printing has been the top of the graphic arts food chain. Light passes though transparent inks of the three subtractive primary colors—cyan(C), magenta(M) and yellow(Y)—strikes the white paper and is reflected back to the eye through the colored ink film. The cyan pigment absorbs red and reflects, or transmits, blue and green light; magenta absorbs green and reflects red and blue, and yellow absorbs blue and reflects red and green. Black (identified by the letter K) is added to enhance the depth and extend the tonal range of the colors.

Intermediate colors—colors other than the subtractive primaries—are formed by laying one film of transparent ink over another. Applying cyan over yellow, for example, will produce green because the cyan ink absorbs the red part of the light and the yellow ink absorbs the blue portion. Only the remaining third—green—is transmitted back to the eye.

Combined in various percentages, CMYK inks can reproduce thousands of hues and mimic the look of continuous tone images such as color photographs. But four-color printing is not full-color printing. Because only three colors of inks are used and because even the best printing is not 100% accurate, conventional four-color printing can only reproduce approximately 100,000 distinct shades.

While that might seem like a lot, it is far less than the number of colors, said to be anywhere from 1 million to 10 million, that can be distinguished by the human eye. Oranges, greens and purples, intense shades of any color, and metallic tones can be especially difficult to capture using the four process colors. And process colors often cannot create a perfect match for solid colors, such as those used in corporate trademarks or on corporate letterheads.

Until relatively recently, the most common way to correct such drawbacks was a second pass—sending the project through the press twice. On the first pass, the press might print the four process colors. Then a second pass might be used to apply special colors, varnishes or screens. The results of using a second pass can be spectacular, but the process is time-consuming, expensive and challenging. Press times double, along with the possibilities for errors, and unless the paper is held in exactly the right position, or registration, images can appear cloudy or out of focus.

Within the past decade or so, however, doing more with color has become increasingly common. A growing number of presses have five, six, or even more printing units, so four-color printing is, increasingly, just the start. Printers can now offer a greater range of colors—and special effects—with one pass through the press. And that means that designers can produce more powerful layouts, do a better job of matching difficult originals and capture colors that have rarely been printed before.

So how do you make the best of these evolving capabilities? Now that extra units are available, what do you do with them?

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