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COLOR SEPARATION: 3 Styles to Help Tackle Photo-Realistic Artwork

When it comes time to separate that photo-realistic job for your customer, it helps to understand the different styles of color separation available and which will be best suited for the job. All 3 styles can be done in Adobe Photoshop without any 3rd party applications or plug-ins. Whether the artwork is vector or raster based; 1 or 13 colors. This post will help point you in the right direction in order to tackle that separation!

In order to choose the style of separation that will work best for your image, we first want to find the origin of the artwork or where it was created. I normally keep the artwork in its native environment so if the artwork was created in Illustrator I would keep it there to keep small details nice and crisp – but there will always be exceptions to this rule. If the file is too complex and is starting to take up too much memory or if it’s just built weird with a lot going on, it’s normally best to export as a .psd and handle the separation in Photoshop.







First style up is Four Color Process. This process is the go-to style of separation for newer shops to tackle photo-realistic images and is great if you have never separated before since it doesn’t require doing much as far as “separation” goes. That said, it can be tricky and unpredictable to newcomers once you hit the press. Four Color Process uses CYAN, MAGENTA, YELLOW and BLACK to create your image and requires specific translucent process inks. Using halftones, the screens are printed wet on wet, and the mixing of the four colors will create all of the colors found in your image. Things to watch out for while you are using Four Color Process would be over-saturation, color-shift, and moire. It’s a powerful style of separation when it comes down to printing on white and lighter garments, but when the garment you are printing on starts to get on the darker side, this process will start to fade. You can create an under-base, but the image will ultimately start to shift colors to a darker tone. I have seen beautiful four color prints on white and lighter garments but ff you decide to use this style for darker color garments you should consult your customer concerning the color shift and variation of color in the print. Click here to read more on Four Color Process.







With this process you create a color palette and apply it to your image, Photoshop will use the palette to create its best representation of the image by applying only the colors you chose. Choosing the right colors in your palette will make or break your separation, so make this #1 priority. Files should be setup in RGB at 180 lpi. Index uses a stochastic bitmap pixel rather than a elliptical half-tone dot, these pixels sit next to each other like a puzzle and do not over-lap like in Simulated Process, so dot gain and moire are not an issue. I like to use a traditional half-tone under-base (discharge or plastisol) for these on darker garments, which produces a great hand to the print. Index works best with more colors so if you have the capacity, this may be a good fit for you. Many of my photo-real index prints are 13 colors plus base fitting comfortably on a 14 color press with 1 flash unit. Index does not work for all images, but once you are comfortable making color palette’s you should be able to determine “on the monitor” whether or not the process will fail in a matter of minutes. You will generally be able to tell if Index is not working by seeing a type of banding or a rough transition between colors – this most likely means you need more colors. You cannot make changes to an Index job once it’s on the press, so make sure you like the way it looks on the monitor before outputting films. This is a very sturdy style of separation and works well in production, reducing print times and almost eliminating the need to stop and clean screens due to ink build up. Index works great on all color grounds without the hassle of changing out screens to accommodate darker colors; you will use the same separation for everything.







This is my favorite style and probably the most versatile of the 3, it will always work when the others fail. Also known as Spot process, Simulated process uses opaque spot colors broken down into elliptical half-tone dots that will stack and overlap, mixing together to create a multitude of colors. It can be printed wet on wet or with a flash unit, depending on the outcome you’re looking for. Simulated Process gives you the ability to produce complex prints without worrying about the amount of ink gain you would normally see in Four Color Process. It is easier to control since we are now using 100% spot colors rather than depending on four colors to mix and create the color we are seeking. It’s important that you use a nice image to start off with, 150lpi would be the absolute lowest resolution with 300lpi being ideal. Stay away from using solid bases with Simulated Process, try a half-tone under-base on darker garments to ensure you get that nice hand your customer will love! Unlike 4 Color Process, Simulated Process uses a Hi-light White at the end of the sequence to make sure the brightest parts of your whites are represented. Separating a photo-real job by hand in Photoshop is time consuming due to masking and pulling colors strategically, this is to make sure you don’t have color printing in random places you don’t want. It’s not uncommon for a complex simulated separation to take several hours to complete but in my opinion, it’s well worth it. Taking your time while you are in the pre-press stage will save you time and money once you hit the press.

It’s important to have options when it comes down to color separation, with these 3 styles you will be able to knock out an array of complex separations on a daily basis. You can even mix these styles of separations together to make the most challenging separation a reality. Don’t be opposed to using 3rd party separation programs, these programs can be a great tool or starting point to generate information you can use in your final separations.

Thanks for reading! Have fun separating!


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