A Letterville Step By Step
Matching Printer Output to a Color Sample
By Don Coplen
While I was working in the screenprint industry as a graphic designer, it was important that the colors of my concept art printouts matched as closely as possible the vinyl colors that were represented. I regularly added new color matches to my Illustrator palettes as new colors of vinyl were added to inventory. Following are the steps that are involved in matching colors to your printer. I am using Adobe Illustrator for this tutorial, but since the only two tools involved are the blending tool and the CMYK color palette, the process I describe will be universal to most design programs.


Throughout this tutorial, I will be referring to three color samples:

  • 1. The target color, which in this case is a color chip from One Shot's new color brochure, but could just as well be a swatch of vinyl.
  • 2. The onscreen color, which is the color squares drawn onscreen.
  • 3. The printer swatches, which are the printed samples. I suggest that you use the same paper that you intend to use when printing out designs, and a resolution of 300 dpi.


Step 1 Creating an estimated onscreen match of the target color.

Begin by creating a new document File>New, and drawing a square. We will be estimating a match of the target color in this step. Educated guesses are all that is needed, as all we need here is a color match starting point.

Only basic color knowledge is required to estimate a match of the target color. (Red + blue = purple, yellow + blue = green, etc.) Begin by sliding to 100% only one or two CMYK values that you decide will be required. If you are matching a red, you will begin by sliding magenta to a value of 100%. If you are matching orange (as in this case), you would begin by sliding the magenta and yellow values to 100%.

Comparing the onscreen color with the target, decide if any of the CMYK values need to be corrected. For my Orange target, the onscreen color is way too red. So, I lessen the magenta value, finding that my orange is reached at 70% magenta. There is no reason to move the yellow value.

In step 1, keep in mind that we are only estimating a color match. The precision part of the match will ultimately be done by your computer. (Relieved to hear that?)

Print the resulting square.

Step 2 Adjusting CMYK values to compensate for differences between the printer test swatch and the target color.

Make a copy of the onscreen color and place it at opposite ends of the workspace print area. We will be working only with the copy in this step of the process. We will not touch the original onscreen color square in this step.

(In the next step, we will be "morphing" a stepped color blend between the first color that we printed and the copy that we're about to adjust in values. So, in this step, the object is to overcompensate for the differences between the first printout and the target, which will cause our target color to fall somewhere between these two in Step 3's blend.)

Unless your original printer test print is a match for the target, which seldom happens, you will notice in comparing the printout with the target that the printed color needs more or less of a hue. It may also need to be dulled or brightened, darkened or lightened. To dull a color, add it's compliment. To brighten a color, subtract it's compliment. Often, you can add or subtract black to darken and lighten a color. And of course, if your printer swatch has too much or too little of a color (for example, too much red), adjust that CMYK value accordingly

It is very important while compensating CMYK values in this step, that you overcompensate, by moving the slider 3 to 5% more in the same direction, than you think it needs. This will help ensure that when we do the blend in Step 3 that the match will fall between this edited color square and the original square that we had earlier printed.



Step 3 Creating a blend, printing the results and comparing the printout to the target color.

Select both onscreen colors. Double click on the blend tool in your toolbox, which will bring up the "Blend Options" window. Set the options to "6 steps" and "continuous". Click "OK".

Using your blend tool, click on a corner of both of the squares, which will create a morph of six different color squares between the original color and the edited copy.

Select the group of eight squares, then expand (Object>Expand) and ungroup them (Object>Group).

Print the eight squares.

Fold the print out along the line of color squares and hold it to your target color to decide which of the printed colors matches your target.

If none of the blended squares matches the target, or if you would like to get closer to dead on, then select the square that comes closest and repeat steps 2 and 3. You'll find that after doing a few color matches, it will become rare that you don't get a perfect match on the first attempt. Once you've made a new color match, you'll want to save it as part of a color palette. Once a custom color palette has been created, it can be used in any future design documents.


Step 4 Saving your new matches to a "permanent" custom color palette.

(Note that the following instructions refer to saving a custom color palette in Adobe Illustrator, and to do the same in other programs, refer to your user manual or help files.) If this is the first match of a new palette, save (File>Save as) the document as a palette name (examples: "One Shot Colors", "Vinyl colors", etc.). Save the document to your Hard drive>Illustrator>Swatch libraries folder.

Select the new color match. Drag the color icon from either the Color Palette window or the toolbox, to the Swatch palette. Double click on the resulting "new color" icon in the Swatch palette to bring up the Swatch dialogue window. In the dialogue box, name the new color, then select "spot color" from the pull down menu.

The advantage of saving your matches as spot colors is that they are so easy to use. Spot colors are adjustable from 0 to 100% without changing the hue. This makes simulating airbrush gradients and halftones a breeze.

Save the document. File>Save

That's all there is to it! Any time in the future when you want to use this new color palette, it's simply a matter of Window>Swatch libraries>and selecting the palette that you named.

You can add color matches to the same palette at any time. Just open the palette that's now located in Hard drive>Illustrator>Swatch libraries, paste the new color into the document, then repeat step 4.

Because of differences between the ways that printers and monitors interpret color, not getting a printout to look the way that you intended can be frustrating. Once you have built up libraries of the colors of paint and vinyl that you use in your layouts, you can be confident that your design printouts will represent just what you had envisioned.

I am currently offering my services for logo design, sign layout and production art. To learn more, email  Don at doncoplen@tampabay.rr.com

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