CMYK. Process Color. 4-color Process. These are all terms that refer to a subtractive method of printing which partially or entirely masks colors on a lighter (usually white) background. The method reduces the light that otherwise would be reflected from the substrate. Essentially, it is called subtractive because the ink “subtracts” brightness from the white garment.
Yeah. We know. It’s complicated. So what does all that mean? Well, 4-color process is a complex technique that, in its early days back in the 19th century, was extraordinarily difficult to master. Today, 4-color process (especially on apparel) isn’t exactly easy. It requires color separations to be generated by specialized software and specific screens that we use only for 4-color process printing and special transparent inks. But the results, when done well, are extraordinary.
The four colors in 4-color Process, otherwise referred to as CMYK, are Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. When printed these four colors, which don’t actually mix, trick the eye into seeing the whole rainbow of colors. Even though, in theory, all the colors of the rainbow can be achieved using just CMYK, the reality is, we almost always need use additional spot colors to enhance the design.
We achieve our best results when we print 4-color Process designs only on White garments (for information on process printing on colored garments, see our section on Simulated Process Printing). We can and have printed on other light color garments with mixed results. We strongly recommend using only white garments.
Also, best results are achieved when printing on the best possible substrate. Sweatshirts are thick and coarse and are not the best platform for this method of printing. In fact, dramatic differences in print quality can be seen even in different types of t-shirts. Certain brands and weaves produce better results than others. Not surprisingly, the better, more expensive shirts are the best shirts to print with 4-color Process.
One of the limitations of 4-color Process is exact color matching. If a specific PMS color match is required in the design – a corporate logo for example – an additional spot color screen will need to be utilized.
Finally, 4-color Process printing is used only for designs that are photographic in nature or have a broad range of colors that cannot be printed using standard spot color printing. We can help you determine the best print method for your design.