What is colour matching for t-shirt printing?


Your guide to Pantones, RGB, CMYK, HEX
and just SWAGGING  it.

SWAG is an acronym taken from the phrase Scientific Wild Arsed Guess.

It is always better to avoid ‘SWAGGING’ it if real data and executive accuracy can be deployed to help produce the right outcome in a situation where an error has tangible and painful consequences.

Colour matching is one of those areas where a SWAG approach can produce pain.

If your logo has colour elements and been drafted by a professional, the designer will have considered colour in a ‘print’ context as well as a ‘web design’ or ‘screen’ context where RGB and HEX values offer a wider gamut. They will have followed your corporate guidelines, adhered to your brief, or used their skill to create your logo in the correct colours.

These colours are important. Different shades and hues in a certain colour can convey different things. You will often here the terms ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ or ‘angry’ and ‘calm’ or ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ when people refer to colour, and this peculiar phenomenon were humans transpose emotions or physical attributes into the communicative qualities of colour is a clear example of how important it is to get it right.

Getting it right is the opposite of swagging it.

The best way to get your colour choices right for personalised t shirts is to actually see what your colour will look like when it is printed. If you are looking at your colours on a computer screen, you are not looking at them in the way as they will actually appear in real life. Your screen is not calibrated to show colours accurately and will have tonal and hue biases that distort their accuracy. Computer screens use RGB (red, green, blue) or HEX (hexadecimal) values to display colour were the real world needs CMYK values or solid colours. (CMYK values can be displayed in programs like Photoshop but the backlit quality of a screen is misleading)

A Pantone colour chart can show you what solid colours are supposed to look like in real life and the number coded and catalogued way they are collated is the global standard by which printers work to. A Pantone book costs around £150 and they can be purchased from a multitude of graphics related retailers online.

Pantone books are usually sold in pairs with a ‘coated’ and ‘uncoated’ colour charts. A coated chart has a gloss finish on the colour swatches, which produces a more saturated looking colour. An uncoated colour has no finish and makes the colour appear ‘matt’ and somewhat less saturated.

It is possible to transpose RGB and HEX values into a Pantone number but this does not always produce 100% accuracy as the available spectrum or gamut that is available for screen colours is brighter and ‘punchier’ than that which is available in the physical world of CMYK or spot colours. The backlighting on a computer monitor produces a brightness and luminescence, which is not available in the real world where light is reflected off a t shirt.

It is also possible to transpose CMYK into Pantone colours but again there is a translational difference.

This is because CMYK printing uses a blend of the four primary printing colours to produce the required colour. That blend is created using very small dots arranged in a tight pattern, which fool the human eye at viewing distances of casual scrutiny.

If your t shirt printer is screen-printing a photographic image or an illustration where there are too many colours to count and variable blends and tonal variation, then CMYK is the only option and you will just have to accept that absolute colour accuracy is not achievable for all of your colours.

If your design is spot colours or solid colours then you should always be aiming to provide your t-shirt printer with a Pantone colour.

This will give them to best chance of supplying you with precisely what you want. There are challenges for a t-shirt printer with matching many of the Pantone colours depending on what colour garment is being printed on or the choice of mesh count or whether they are matching to coated or uncoated colours but this is the subject for another blog.

Your T-shirt printer can lift your colour profiles out of your graphic using a Photoshop eye dropper tool but the variables in what version of Photoshop (or other program) the original image was created, what monitor the document is being viewed on and innumerable other unknown variables, makes consistency a problem for t-shirt printing companies when using this tool.

For now, try not to SWAG it, get to know your Pantones and remember, there is no such thing as red, blue, green, yellow, purple, orange, brown, pink, beige, mauve, teal, turquoise, sunset, grey, greeny grey, bluey grey, browny grey, post box red and rosehip pink.

We just want a number.

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