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Litho Printing:  Using 1 or two spot (Pantone© ) colours, or full colour CMYK?

There are many colour issues that can develop when trying to achieve colour consistency across your stationery and promotional branding when it is printed in a multitude of formats, and on different paper types (such as coated or uncoated paper, gloss or matt finished items, etc.)  There are 2 main processes:  Spot Colour, and Process Colour (often described as CMYK or just Full-Colour).
Here is a quick explanation between printing with spot colours (using lithographic printing), and using process colours (CMYK full colour) litho printing:

Litho Printing in Spot Colours

The following information relates to 'lithographic printing', (or just 'litho' as we refer to it) which is just a fancy name to describe the process of printing, using inks on a standard printing press. 
A good analogy is buying paint in your local paint or decor hardware store. A colour 'swatch' stand is provided whereby you make your colour selection and the store can then supply you with a a pre-mixed colour that's displayed on the swatch.  If you were after a colour that isn't on the swatch then the store can do a special mix to achieve the colour you are seeking.
The same process is used in spot colour lithographic printing.
The industry-standard colour reference is Pantone©.  So for instance, if you choose Pantone© 286 this is a Royal Blue. Pantone© 485 is deep red, and so on.
So if you were producing a 2 colour print job with, for instance, Black as the main colour and another 2nd Pantone® colour would be used for the text.  To produce this job would entail making 2 sheets of film which would then be used to make 2 printing plates for the press.  The more spot colours used, the more film and plates are needed, hence the increased costs.
To keep costs down it's possible to create tints (or percentages) of a spot colour without needing extra film or plates.
The example (shown below) consists of Pantone® 032 at: 100% + 50% + 25%.
These 3 'shades' would all be on 1 piece of film & 1 plate. (so it would be deemed a single colour).
pantone 032 100% pantone 032 50% pantone 032 20%
100% 50% 20%




Setting up to print spot colours on Litho machines

A Spot Colour press usually print as follows:
A 1 colour press has 1 printing unit, and a 2 colour press has 2 printing units.
Let's assume you have a 2 colour letterhead, using the following Pantone© colours: 281 (dark blue) + 032 (post office red).
The machine operator using the 2 colour press would have to ink one unit with 281 and ink the other unit with 032. A certain amount of material would be wasted getting the inks up-to-strength before the job could be started.
However, once this job has been completed the operator may then have another job requiring 2 totally different colours. The ink units would both need to be washed down, before the new inks can be introduced, and the same process would happen where the inks need to be brought up to full strength.
As you can see, this is quite labour intensive and in fact, most of the costs involved with short-run printing goes on the press set-up time. (in other words it is expensive to do Litho printing for short spot colour runs such as 500 - 2000 prints.

When spot colour printing become an issue

If you choose one of the standard Pantone© colours then generally, there should not be any problems. However, printing the colour on different substrates, such as coated paper for gift bags, business cards, or plain matt paper such as letterheads, invoices etc.can show some variation in the colour.
This is mainly due to a couple of reasons:
  • The materials will have different absorbency properties and they may also have slightly different shades (with coated paper the ink sits on top, and with matt paper the ink will absorb.
  • Using different colours of base paper such as the difference between 100gsm Conqueror© hi-white wove for instance, is a slightly creamy colour, whereas a standard 335gsm hi-white is much whiter, so consequently the colour may look slightly different on the two products.


However, even taking the above possible issues into consideration, printing using the Pantone© reference is still the most reliable way of achieving colour consistency.

CMYK - Process Colour Printing

Where spot colours cannot be used, process colours are normally used where continuous tones (as in photographs) are required.
The primary colours Cyan, Magenta & Yellow are mixed with Black to produce the full range of colours.
For instance, if we needed to produce the Pantone® 032 colour above using a 4 colour process, the 'split' would be:
Cyan = 0% - Magenta = 90% - Yellow = 86% - Black = 0%.
CMYK process colours toolbar
CMYK is and acronym for Cyan (blue), Magenta (red), Yellow and Black.  All these inks are mixed together to achieve the final result.  Any spot colour can be converted to CMYK and produced using this method but with varied results.  As a separate piece of film and plate is produced for each of the 4 colours this adds heavily to the cost compared to printing in spot colours.

Setting up to print CMYK full colur prints on Litho machines

A 3 colour press is not economical, so we would jump straight to a 4 colour press, which obviously has 4 printing units.  A standard 4 colour press would have 4 printing units, however many larger presses utilize more units, which can be used for adding a particular spot colour, or UV varnish etc.  
The machine operator using the 4 colour press would ink the 4 units using Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Black.  For our purposes, let's say he has 6 different full-colour jobs to produce.
Once the inks are brought up to strength, each job can be passed through the press with no wash down involved, as they all use the same inks. To streamline this process even further, the guys in the reproduction (art) studio could  'plan' the 6 jobs on one large sheet if it uses the same paper and is small enough to fit.
This means the press operator can run all 6 jobs in one go.

When is CMYK printing an issue?

Why isn't CMYK printing cheaper than using the 2 spot colour method?
The reason is the costs involved. A 4 colour press is far more expensive than a 2 colour.
Also, a 4 colour press operator is a highly-skilled operative so we also have a higher salary to consider.

Converting Pantone colours to CMYK

The one main problem with converting spot colours to CMYK is that quite often, the CMYK version will look different to the spot colour version.
There are certain colours that will cause more problems than others. Pantone© 021 (Orange) for instance, will look Brown when converted to CMYK.  Now, if all your printing is being produced in CMYK then generally there is not a problem.  The problems begin when part of the printing (gift bags for instance) is produced in CMYK and other items, (letterheads etc.) are produced in spot colour.
The spot colour version will be more accurate (colour-wise) than the CMYK equivalent.  So, unless steps are taken, it's possible that you could end up with cards and letterheads looking like they've been produced in different colours, which is not ideal!

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