Mixing ink is an art form. Sometimes you’ll spend an hour mixing up your custom Pantone ink just right, following the exact formula and, when you go to to start printing, the Pantone color looks totally wrong! The thing is, no matter how perfectly the formula is crafted and flawless your process is, there are some variables that you have to account for yourself when mixing your own custom pantone inks. Light quality and source, garment color, the accuracy of your scale, and type of ink all come into play when you’re trying to get a custom Pantone color to look right on the garment. Even the most thought-out mixing system will have to be tweaked to fit one’s specific needs.

Why does the same Pantone color look different on different colored garments?

First, it’s important to note that most inks are at least a little bit transparent. That means that whatever color the garment is beneath the ink, the color will show through at least a little bit. That’s why Pantone (PMS) colors that are mixed to match the swatches in the Pantone® solid coated book are actually designed to be printed onto a white garment. This is because the book itself is printed onto white paper. When printing on white garments this should be fine, but when you are printing onto colors it becomes a little more work to match that color. If you use a white underbase on your colored garment it will help, however, if you are printing directly onto a colored shirt, you may need to alter the formula in order to get the color to visually match the color you have chosen.

This is where it is important to clarify with your customer how strict their color matching requirements are. For example, NIKE uses PMS 1655 Orange as NIKE Orange. It is required that the color “look” like PMS 1655 regardless of the color of the garment or substrate it’s printed on.

In a shop that one of our technical printers used to work at, they had 20 different buckets of ink called PMS 1665 NIKE. Each one mixed to a specific substrate, designed to be printed on everything from a brown wood box to a navy blue t-shirt. The background color alters the perception of the orange which required them to tweak the color they were mixing so the printed color matches 1655 exactly. This can be a daunting task if not approached correctly.

First, start by determining if your client actually wants a specific PMS number, or if a color that is close enough will be acceptable. “Close enough” will save you time and money since mixing custom Pantone colors is a bit of a process and you may be able sell the on a standard Ready-For-Use color instead. If they do have a specific PMS color in mind, the next question you should ask is if it is a trademarked color. If it is, your diligence in mixing it will need to be on-point and it’s time to start the delicate tweaking process. If it’s not, you can advise the customer that you will mix the color to as close as you can to the solid Pantone® book and show them what you have. It may be close enough.

Next, determine what color of the garments they want. This color will alter how you see the colors that are printed on top. Our perception of color is in relationship to it’s adjacent colors and that can radically shift the color even though the ink has not changed at all. When mixing a specific PMS number it is critical to consider the color of the garment which it will be printed on.

The key is to test, test, test. Most printers either mix by eye or with a mixing system. A few will have manufacturers or suppliers mix the inks for them because, although this saves you time, it can be expensive and if you are printing on anything other than white, the color may be off on the final product. When mixing, it is best to start by mixing the color to match your Pantone book. This will give you a solid base to begin with. Then, print and dry the ink on the shirt color you will actually be using. This will tell you which direction to go to match the color visually- Tweak the color and test again. This process can take a while but save you uncomfortable explanations of color theory with the customer after the fact.

Once you’ve gotten a color you are comfortable with, show your customer the printed result and make sure that they agree on the color’s accuracy. Don’t forget to get a signature on your proofing document from your customer, especially with PMS color matching. That way you cover all your bases and the customer can’t recant due to a color shift on press.

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