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Defining Process and Spot Colors

In the world of print media, color and printing options are vital.  In print, there are two main types of color options: spot color and process color.  Knowing the difference between the two and how they work is important because it can aid in producing the desired results of your print designs before sending your work off to the press whether it is a proof or final.

Process Color

A more common name or reference to process color is the CMYK model or four color and is a subtractive color model used in print.  Subtractive color simply means that paints, dyes or inks are used to create a range of colors that are produced when certain light wavelengths are absorbed while others are reflected.  For example, creating a green color would result in the mixture of paints that would absorb all wavelengths of light, except the desired green light frequency, which is reflected and perceived by our eyes to be the green color intended.  The colors created in the CMYK model come from the mixture of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black) inks.  It’s a large misconception that the k in CMYK is black based on the last letter of the said color, but it actually relates back to traditional print methods.

How does it work?

Process color works using a process called halftoning, sometimes known as screening, which provides a difference in the size of dots printed of a chosen ink on the selected substrate.  If I wanted to create a pink color, I would use Magenta printed with a 20% halftone on a white substrate.  The human eye blends the magenta and white to perceive the pink color on the printed project.  To create more specific colors, the primary CMY colors are printed with various halftones in order to create a wider range of color.  If halftoning wasn’t applied, only seven colors would be produced in print: the three primary colors cyan, yellow, and magenta; a purple blue color from the mixture of cyan and magenta; a red color from the mixture of magenta and yellow; finally, layering all of the primaries would result in black.


Why use Black Ink?

In theory, black is created by mixing the primaries. Realistically, it produces something close to black, but not a true black that is required for intended use or purpose. CMY alone would produce undesirable results for projects that require pure black. Other reasons include:

  • By using only CMY to produce black, more ink would be required to print the color, which would result in longer dry times. In high speed printing processes, this could cause smudges in the prints and in cases such as newsprint, the paper could tear.
  • Seeing as more ink would be used in the above scenario, this would increase the cost of printing. By having one ink, publishers only need to purchase one cartridge rather than 3 separate ones to print black. Also, black is less expensive than color inks.
  • Process color is commonly known as the CMYK model or four color printing
  • CMYK is a subtractive color model, meaning the mixing of inks, pigments, or paints absorb all light except the desired color frequency, which is reflected and what humans perceive as the desired color
  • Halftoning must be used to create more colors. It’s the process of providing a difference in the size of dots printed of a chosen ink on the selected substrate. If halftoning didn’t exist, only seven colors would be possible in print.
  • Using black ink is important because it reduces the time it takes for inks to dry, is more cost effective, and will produce a pure black needed for projects.

Spot Color

A spot color is a color created for a single run print generated by the mixture of one or more inks. Generally, CMYK colors are used to create these colors, but more advanced processes allow for the addition of Orange/Green or Orange/Violet to the printing process. Extending the CMYK process to these colors allow for more efficient and wider range of colors that can be used in the design process. Applications such as Adobe Illustrator, Adobe InDesign, and Quark have the possibility of generating spot colors as additional channels in the projects being created. Think of spot colors as extended custom colors used for widening the range of the color spectrum.

Spot Color Classification

In order to insure that these custom colors can be replicated for future use, standards have been established in the industry in order to provide designers with a reference guide to colors. In the United States, the PANTONE Matching System (PMS) is the dominating company that standardizes color. Toyo and DIC are the common spot color industries in Japan. The American Newspaper Publishers Association (ANPA) also has a set of 300 spot colors used in newspapers. The problem with multiple standards, though, is that each color is created from scratch, so converting from PANTONE to Toyo would be a challenge, and sometimes near impossible.

When to Use…


  • If a publication uses one or multiple full-color photographs
  • When a publication has multi-color graphics that would require the use of many inks and spot colors to reproduce


  • Any type of publication that does not have or require full-color photographs and uses one or two colors, which includes black and the one spot color
  • Any type of publication that needs a color where color cannot be created exclusively with CMYK. Examples of such work include logos
  • Printing over a large area. Posters or banners are prime examples and in some cases spot colors could a more even coverage of color
  • If metallic or fluorescent colors are needed


  • Publications that include full-color photographs and a logo that may need a spot color
  • Enhancement of intensity of a certain process color. Adding a spot color can achieve this

6 Color Print

  • To get more accurate and pure oranges, violets, and greens
  • Nearly 90% of PANTONE spot colors can be matched with a 6 or 8 color print. Our HP Indigo ws4500 Digital Press can match up to 97% of colors
  • Spot colors are usually created for a single run print. They are custom colors, in a senseTo create a wider range of spot colors, CMYK can be extended to having
  • Orange/Green (CMYKOG) or Orange/Violet (CMYKOV) inks to provide this range and accuracy
  • Standards have been created by PANTONE, Toyo, and other organizations so that these custom colors can be replicated for future use
  • Converting from one color standard can be very difficult and in some cases almost impossible because the colors are made from scratch

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