CMYK and Solid Inks Explained

4 Color Process

Four color process printing – also referred to as CMYK – combines cyan, magenta, yellow, and black colored inks to make nearly every visible color. Even solid Pantone colors can be replicated using CMYK builds. Adjustments to color tones and hues for four color process printing are done digitally using color curves to match customer specifications.

Four color process ink application can be used for lithographic, flexographic, and digital printing. When printing via lithographic or flexographic technologies, individual transfer plates are used to distribute different amounts of cyan, magenta, yellow or black to the paper; thereby creating the desired colors. In contrast, plates are not used in digital printing. Instead, CMYK is applied directly from the print roller to the paper – resulting in perfect ink registration.

In terms of design, four color process is best used for vivid, detailed illustrations because there is virtually no limit to the number of colors that can be created. Skilled printers are adept at keeping color consistent throughout long runs, even with each color being created via a precise blend of CMYK.

PMS pinwheel

Solid Colors

When printing with solid colors, or “spot colors”, ink is mixed offline to match desired hues. This involves the teamwork of a pre-press technician and the ink department. Think of the process like going to a home improvement store, selecting a specific color swatch, and having the ink specialist mix paint to match the chosen color.

Solid color ink application is used in lithographic and flexographic printing. Ink is applied via plates that distribute ink to precise areas called-out in the art files. Except in rare cases, digital printing only uses CMYK, so solid spot colors are not applicable to that printing technology.  

The benefits of spot colors are consistent hues and colorfastness throughout the print run, as well as the capability for higher ink density. Solid colors are also great for labels with fine type.

Fortunately, you don’t have to make the decision to print your labels using four color process or solid colors alone. Review your artwork with your printer to figure out the best option for your design. Have a label project you want to discuss? Contact one of our team members here