Color Printing - Modern Techniques

Modern Techniques

While there are many techniques for reproducing images in color, specific graphic processes and industrial equipment are used for mass reproduction of color images on paper. In this sense, "color printing" involves reproduction techniques suited for printing presses capable of thousands or millions of impressions for publishing newspapers and magazines, brochures, cards, posters and similar mass-market items. In this type of industrial or commercial printing, the technique used to print full-color images, such as color photographs, is referred to as four-color-process or merely process printing. Four inks are used: three secondary colors plus black. These ink colors are cyan, magenta and yellow; abbreviated as CMYK. Cyan can be thought of as minus-red, magenta as minus-green, and yellow as minus-blue. These inks are semi-transparent or translucent. Where two such inks overlap on the paper due to sequential printing impressions, a primary color is perceived. For example, yellow (minus-blue) overprinted by magenta (minus green) yields red. Where all three inks may overlap, almost all incident light is absorbed or subtracted, yielding near black. It is because of this poor "subtractive" black that a separate black ink is used. The secondary or subtractive colors cyan, magenta and yellow may be considered "primary" by printers and watercolorists (whose basic inks and paints are transparent).

Two graphic techniques are required to prepare images for four-color printing. In the "pre-press" stage, original images are translated into forms that can be used on a printing press, through "color separation," and "screening" or "halftoning." These steps make possible the creation of printing plates that can transfer color impressions to paper on printing presses based on the principles of lithography.

An emerging method of full-color printing is six-color process printing (for example, Pantone's Hexachrome system) which adds orange and green to the traditional CMYK inks for a larger and more vibrant gamut, or color range. However, such alternate color systems still rely on color separation, halftoning and lithography to produce printed images.

Color printing can also involve as few as one color ink, or multiple color inks which are not the primary colors. Using a limited number of color inks, or specific color inks in addition to the primary colors, is referred to as "spot color" printing. Generally, spot-color inks are specific formulations that are designed to print alone, rather than to blend with other inks on the paper to produce various hues and shades. The range of available spot color inks, much like paint, is nearly unlimited, and much more varied than the colors that can be produced by four-color-process printing. Spot-color inks range from subtle pastels to intense fluorescents to reflective metallics.

Color printing involves a series of steps, or transformations, to generate a quality color reproduction. The following sections focus on the steps used when reproducing a color image in CMYK printing, along with some historical perspective.

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