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What Is Full Color Printing?


What is full color printing?

Everything from photography to television made the eventual evolution from black and white to full color and it is no different for printing. In fact it is so common we have a whole section of our site dedicated to products that have full color personalization included in the pricing (wink, wink). However, like many other people, you may not know exactly what the term “full color” means.

Full Color: A printing process that combines four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) to create full color images, commonly referred to as “CMYK”. Theses colors are printed on top of one another producing a continuous tone color image (i.e., colors that smoothly merge into the neighboring colors, instead of producing distinct, sharply-outlined areas of color.)

Here is an illustration of the full color printing process.

CMYK Printing Illustration


Full color printing has so many great qualities, including a wide spectrum of vivid color. This not only gives an eye-catching appeal to a logo, but also is highly desirable for brand recognition, making it more memorable and eye catching. Color also gives a printed piece a more professional look, giving your prospective customers a higher level of trust. Though, full color printing can get close to your specific color, exact color matches cannot be guaranteed due to the variance in the color mixing process. If the color has to be exact, we suggest printing with Pantones. However, even Pantone colors can be affected when printed on certain product materials and may not match precisely.


While on the topic of Pantone matching and full color printing, Pantone, aka “spot colors”, are solid inks assigned to numbers that look the same no matter who prints them. CMYK colors, on the other hand, are created on a printing press using a mix of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black inks. Since there are variations between presses, press operators and other factors, CMYK colors are not guaranteed to be perfectly reproduced between printers or even print jobs. This illustration shows how a Pantone conversion to CMYK can greatly affect the color outcome.


Pantone vs. CMYK Color Conversion


There are a couple of different methods to achieve a full color print job. However, not all full color printing is created equal. Often when someone is referring to printing in full color, they are referring to full color offset printing. There are a few other methods that allow for a full color imprint and each has its own set of practical limitations.

Full Color Offset

Full color offset is the most common form of full color printing. It is currently the highest quality of full color printing and the most expensive. This process is also referred to as screen printing or CMYK printing, even though all methods of full color printing use CMYK. This process uses a screen made of nylon or polyester. The screen has the inverse of the artwork (which has been separated into CMYK layers) burned into it. Full color printing would result in having four screens made, one for each of the printing colors. The corresponding ink is then spread across the screen and transferred to the product.

Digital Printing

Digital printing is a process that is growing in popularity, and has been around for the past few decades. The core difference between full color offset printing and full color digital printing is that digital printing uses no screens. Some printers can print directly to a product. This alone reduces set-up time, cost and overall waste. Digital printing technology is still advancing and has a ways to go in order to reach the quality of offset printing.


Another full color method, which is not as popular as full color offset or digital printing is sublimation. Sublimation is technically a digital printing method and is a process by which dyes are printed onto a transfer medium with a specially prepared inkjet printer. These dyes are then transferred from the medium to the object under heat and pressure from a commercial heat press. Most products that can accept a sublimation style print are made of polyester or have a polyester coating. When the heat from the press is applied to the dye/transfer the transfer medium sublimates and absorbs into the polyester. This process does not fade or show wear easily but the quality is not as high as offset or digital.

Now that we have a basic understand of Full color printing, let’s discuss some of the specific features that make this process work. There are a few terms that get thrown around while referring to full color, one being halftones.


Halftones are a reproduction of a photograph or other image in which the various tones of color are produced by different sized dots of ink.Here is a zoomed in view of halftones.

How Halftones Work


This element of the full color printing process relies on an optical illusion. Tiny halftone dots are blended into smooth continuous tones by the human eye. However at a microscopic level, every printed photo consists of only 4 colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black), as seen in the photo above. This is one of the reasons that an exact PMS match with full color printing cannot be guaranteed.


Bleed is printing that goes beyond the edge of the sheet before trimming. In other words, bleed is the area that is to be trimmed off. This would not pertain to you if you are printing on a pen, mug, or any item where the imprint does not go to the edge. However, on products such as a note cube, mouse pad, banner and many other products, this term will be used and needs to be included in your art file for printing to be performed as intended. If this is not set up properly, the printing could produce a thin white border surrounding your artwork. See illustration below.


How Bleed Works In Printing

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