Spot, Pantone and Process Colours Explained

Author: Ellie Williamson
Published: 26/09/2014

Find out about spot colours, pantone colours and process colours.

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What are Spot Colours?

Spot colours are created without screens or dots, are referred to in the industry as spot or solid colours. The leading spot colour printing system is Pantone®.

Creating Spot Colours...

When printing with spot colours, each colour specified is printed using its own unique ink, unlike CMYK process printing which uses a make up of the four inks to create every colour within your artwork. From a palette of 14 basic colours, each of the spot colours in the Pantone Matching System is mixed according to its own unique ink mixing formula developed by Pantone.

You probably mixed yellow and blue paint to get green in your youth. Creating a Pantone Spot Colour is similar in concept, but with the added need for precision.

When should you use Spot Colours in print?

We suggest printing your artwork using spot colours when it is crucial the colours within the printed outcome are accurate, often this is the case when printing stationery for a business with very strict printing guidelines. Nevertheless, sometimes this isn't a suitable option for customers due to the increased costs compared to process printing.

When printing using spot colours, sheets of film are produced for each spot colour and this is used to create the printing plates, therefore the more spot colours within your artwork, the more expensive the job will be.

To keep costs to a minimum when printing with spot colours, it is recommended that you only incorporate 1 to 3 different colours and in order to get more variety, use tints of these colours as this doesn't necessitate additional printing plates.

**Important Information**

If your order is being printed using the full colour process but your supplied artwork includes spot colours, our studio will convert them to CMYK using the Pantone® colour bridge swatch book. In some cases, spot colours can significantly change in appearance when converted to CMYK, this is due to the press being unable to duplicate colours exactly. The most noticeable differences occur with bright colours such as orange and pink.




When printing with spot colours you can incorporate metallic inks into your artwork.

What are Pantone Colours?

The precision begins with the printing ink manufacturers who are licensed by Pantone to manufacture inks for mixing Pantone Matching System colours. To retain their license, they must annually submit samples of the 14 basic colours for approval by Pantone. Printers can then order the colours by number or mix it themselves according to the ink mixing formula in a PANTONE formula guide. A PANTONE Chip supplied with the ink and/or job ensures that the printer achieves the colour desired by the customer.

Pantone Colour Referencing

Each colour in the System has a unique name or number followed by either a C, U or M. The letter suffix refers to the paper stock on which it is printed: C for Coated paper, U for Uncoated paper and M for Matte paper. Also created without screens, PANTONE metallic and pastel colours are considered part of the PANTONE MATCHING SYSTEM. Due to the gamut of the 14 basic colours, some spot colours will be cleaner and brighter than if they were created in the four-colour process described below. Spot colours are commonly used in corporate logos and identity programs, and in one, two or three-colour jobs.

What are Process Colours?

This method of achieving colour in printing is referred to as CMYK, four colour process, 4/c process or even just process. To reproduce a colour image, a file is separated into four different colours: Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow (Y) and Black (K).

CMYK Colours

During separation, screen tints comprised of small dots are applied at different angles to each of the four colours. The screened separations are then transferred to four different printing plates, one for each colour, and run on a printing press with one colour overprinting the next. The composite image fools the naked eye with the illusion of continuous tone.

Colour representation with CMYK

Process colours are represented as percentages of cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Varying the percentages offers thousands of colour possibilities. When four-colour process printing is used to reproduce photographs, decorative elements such as borders and graphics can be created out of process colours. This helps to avoid the added expense of an extra plate needed to print each spot colour.

Converting spot colours to process colours

Often times, a spot PANTONE MATCHING SYSTEM colour is requested when creating a four colour process piece. To save money, the spot colour should be evaluated to see how it will look if printed in CMYK. While some colours can be simulated well, there are many that look quite different. As the quality of the resulting colour conversion is very subjective, the designer can make decisions using the PANTONE colour bridge guide.

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