The print industry normally subscribes to two main color models in order to achieve a particular design’s chrome requirements. These models include the Subtractive Color Models, and the Additive Color Models. In comparison, Subtractive Color Models employ reflective light, whereas Additive Color Models opt for projective light, hence the latter’s wider or more exhaustive color gamut during color creation. Under the subtractive principle, the Cyan Magenta Yellow Black (CMYK) four color processing is the most widely used. This system employs the introduction of layers of ink onto the whiteness of the substrate (paper) so as to create the required colors. Meanwhile, Additive Color Models, use the Red Green Blue (RGB) color processing scheme, wherein the substrate is first printed with black ink, onto which consequent layers of colors are added to create the desired chrome schemes. Other popular color processing models employed in the printing industry include HSL, Lab, Grayscale, HSB, and XYZ.


image source:

The most widely used color model in field of design printing is CMYK. There are two basic tenets that have to be understood when using this Subtractive Color Model. First is that white is considered as the color’s absence. Second, the more layers of color added on a surface, the darker it becomes. This color processing employs half-tone screens to create tonality. These half-tone screens are the ones responsible for creating the color dots that eventually comprise a specific color scheme or tone; darker colors require larger dots, whereas vivid ones with enhanced photographic quality are achieved through usage of finer dots. Through the overlapping of the CMYK colors, the result is the emergence of full-color optical illusion. For instance, red is created through the overlap of yellow and magenta.

Although CMYK is quite reliable, sometimes, inconsistencies in exposure lead to unnecessary or unintended color variations. This is especially problematic for designs that need exact color tone or quality. In order to address this dilemma, the printing industry has come up with an enhanced color matching model called the Pantone. The ensuing chromes from this system are called Spot Colors.


image source:

Spot colors can either be used as supplement for, or alternative to, CMYK process colors. Each spot color requires a separate pressing plate.

There are other color process systems, under the Subtractive Color Models, currently being employed in specific sub-niches that belong to the printing industry. These include the Munsell Color System, Ostwald System, Schopenhauer/Goethe Weighted Color System.

  • The Munsell Color System is quite reliable when it comes to ensuring color intensity, hue, and value. This system applies the Munsell Color Wheel which labels chrome or intensity from 1 (lowest) to 15 (highest), hue with a set of alpha-numeric identifications, and value with a number ranging from 1 to 11. The U.S. Bureau of Standards uses this color processing system.
  • Ostwald System- Although considered as the least practical, there are still specialty print industries that employ this system. The primary colors under this model include yellow, ultramarine, sea green, red, and blue. Secondary chromes are purple, leaf green, orange, and turquoise.
  • Schopenhauer/Goethe Weighted Color System- In this system, colors are assigned with perceived weight values based on their darkness or lightness.

Written by Laura Brentley: Laura Brentley has worked in Card Printing’s design team prior to taking up the position of Senior Sales Manager. She also had a hand in conceptualizing their newest infographic The Psychology Of Business Card Design.