Simple Color Separations In Illustrator Tutorial

For some screen printers, using illustrator to separate colors can be overwhelming at times. Luckily, the main roadblock people run into is but is over-thinking the process. In this video, I will show a simple way to separate a design using some key tools in Illustrator.

This artwork was given to me by a client of mine who is new to screen printing. It’s for a left chest design they are printing that will not be needing an underbase. We’re dealing with real artwork that will be printed for a real job. These principles are the same ones I use when approaching every separation and artwork for spot color printing in Illustrator. 

What is Spot Color Printing? Spot color printing, as shown in this video, can be defined as “what you see is what you print.” Meaning, where there is red ink, I will have a red screen and where there is blue ink, I will have a blue screen. It’s the most common type of screen printing used with most daily printed designs. Other forms of printing would be things like spot process and four color process printing. These methods use multiple colors, typically in high detail, to make the appearance of a vast amount of colors being printed. Spot Color Printing is what we’re dealing with today and what you as a screen printing will mostly be dealing with on a day to day basis.


First, I’ll open up the Illustrator file and make sure my workspace is setup correctly. (You could also open a new document and import the Illustrator file). I like to use the pre-made Printing and Proofing workspace in Illustrator. This sets me up with all the tools I need to do my separations. Then, we’ll make sure our art board matches the size of the film we’re printing. This helps make sure I am designing and separating only on the size of film I’ll be printing on. The final thing I’ll do is make sure my rulers are turned on. Press Ctr+R to make sure this is the case. Rulers are very useful during separations and design of screen printed artwork.

When I open the file, I first will look at the type/fonts used. If you are opening a file with fonts that you do not have you will be prompted by Illustrator to find and install them or replace those elements with existing fonts. 

Pro Tip: If you are going to be sending artwork to someone for separation or printing, make sure to convert all text into outlines. This will make this step not needed and ensure that your artwork is printed as it was intended.


Next I will make everything into Spot Colors. This is an important step because Spot Colors are what most RIPs (AccuRIP included) use to determine what needs to be printed out on each film. You do not have to use the exact color that will be printed as a Spot Color, something close will do. 

First, select an element with the color you’d like to convert. Then, click Select in the top menu. Scroll down to Similar and click Fill Color. This will select everything that is the same color and will allow you to change all elements at one time to the Spot Color you’ll be using. This tool is a huge time saver and one I use all the time! 

Once you have everything selected, you can click the New Swatch button on the Swatches Tab. Name it whatever you’d like and change the color type to Spot Color. You’ll now see a swatch square with that color and a white dog ear with a black dot in it. This new swatch is now a spot color that will show up in your separations preview and when you go to print. Repeat this process for all colors and now we’re ready to setup our registration marks.


There are all kinds of registration marks you can use and some even built into Illustrator. Personally, I like to use my own and recommend you do the same. The pre-built ones in Illustrator are more meant for higher details and can sometimes not be easy enough to see. I’ve included below links to download Registration Mark Templates in .Ai and PDF formats. 

Registration Marks Template - 13x19 Film - Illustrator File

Registration Marks Template - 13x19 Film - PDF File

If you’d like to create your own on the page, I go over this in the video. Make sure to use the Registration Color for your registration marks if you decide to create your own.

Once created, we can center the marks with our artwork. I like using one registration mark on the top and one on the bottom for smaller prints like left chest, sleeve and tag prints. Larger, standard sized prints, I like to use three across the top and three across the bottom. This gives me more points to reference for larger designs and definitely helps. 

When centering your artwork, you’ll want to make sure the artwork is grouped. Select the art to be printed and press Ctrl + G to group the artwork. This will make sure nothing is left out or falls out of place on your design.

It’s recommended that you put the width and length or other things that will help identify what this artwork is for like a job number or placement. Bonus points if you use the spot colors to mark what colors are to be printed on each film.


Now before we print our films, let’s check one thing. Click on the Separation Preview Tab and turn off all CMYK colors. You should now only see the spot colors you have in your design plus the registration marks. If any part of your design is missing, it is not set to a spot color. This is a great indicator that will tell you to go back and make that object a spot color. You can also go through only showing one color at a time to confirm what will be printing on each film.


We’re now ready to print our films. In the video I go through how to print using AccuRIP — a very simple process. As long as we have the artwork setup correctly, printing our films will be the easiest part of the process. The process may seem daunting for your first time, but sticking to it for a couple of jobs will help make this second nature and extremely easy for you quickly. I would recommend you even separate some test designs in this manner to get used to it. 

There are all kinds of tips, tricks, and cool ideas out there to help each individual separate artwork in the way that works best for them. Please look into some of those ideas as everyone has a different take on separations. This guide is meant to give you a base to start from and a way to separate most simple designs. We’re also using key principles here that will help you in your overall use of Illustrator as a garment decorator. 

Please feel free to reach out with any questions, ideas, comments or suggestions. At Ryonet, we’re here to help you grow and are always happy to do so!


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