Color Explained | Southport Printing Company
Color Explained

Color Blog
Why does the printed piece look different from my screen?


Color is a wonderful and tricky thing.  We as designers and printers try to harness the power of color, but there are a lot of factors that affect how something will appear on the printed page.

Computer monitors use additive color mixing to show images on your screen.  They mix red, green and blue light in order to create new colors.  If all three colored lights are mixed at their full intensities, your eyes will perceive it as white.  If all the lights are turned off, your eye will see black. By mixing these three colored lights, your monitor is able to produce the vast majority of colors that the human eye can perceive.  Monitors are not all calibrated the same way though, so what you see on your screen may not be the same thing we see here at the shop or even what your co-worker across the hall sees on his/her screen.


In process offset and digital printing, colors are produced by mixing Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black.  This is known as subtractive color mixing because the ink filters the light, absorbing all of the colors except the one it was designed to reflect.  An unprinted surface reflects its own color, white if the paper stock is white, or ivory if you’ve chosen a cream colored stock.  This is why paper selection is important to the final appearance of your printed sheet.  Each paper company produces paper in many shades of white, as well as other colors.  We can help you select one that compliments your design.

The bottom line is that you cannot create the same range of colors with inks that you can with light sources, and for this reason you will never achieve a perfect color match between the two systems.  There are even differences between devices that use the same color system.  An inkjet printer, digital press and offset press all use CMYK, but use unique production techniques that can generate wildly different results.  An inkjet printer uses liquid ink that is sprayed onto the page, while a digital press lays down powder toner and adhers it to the page with heat.  It is another leap to an offset press which lays down layers of ink using plates.  Lastly, there are still more differences between two pieces of the same type of equipment.  Think about it, when you go to an electronics store and they have a wall of TVs, you will find that images on those screens differ in color, even though they are all showing the same image containing the same color values.  The same can be true for digital printers and presses.  We suggest asking for a proof when running a digital color job, so that you can see how the machine produces your image on the stock you select.

Clearly, this all makes achieving consistency in color enormously difficult, thus for many things like logos, we rely on a different color system all together, the Pantone Matching System or PMS for short. The idea behind the PMS is to allow designers to “color match” specific colors when a design enters production stage.  Pantone colors are described by number, such as PMS 5312 and substrate finish, C or U, (coated or uncoated).  By referring to our PMS swatch books, our digital press operators can make a close approximation to your specified PMS color, however for true consistency, we can use our offset presses to apply the exact ink for one, two or three color jobs. Keep in mind though that the same ink color may look different on different colored and textured stock, so it is best to use the same paper mill stock and color for your branded pieces.  The Pantone system also allows for many special colors to be produced, such as metallics and fluorescents.  Fun fact:  Pantone’s 2014 Color of the Year is Radiant Orchid (PMS 18-3224).

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