What is Full Color Printing? Everything You Need to Know About the Process

Alyssa Mertes

Promo Expert

Published: June 6th, 2020

Do you find yourself flipping through a magazine just to look at the ads? Have you ever bought a t-shirt just because it has a colorful design on the front? If so, congratulations - you’ve interacted with full color printing!

You may not work in a print shop, so here’s a simple rundown of the process and why it matters.

What is Full Color Printing?

Full color printing is when a colorful image, like a logo or photo, is printed onto some kind of surface. You’ll see it used for magazines, stickers, greeting cards, billboards, mugs, bags, and so much more.

Take a look at some other examples of full color imprints!

Book Covers
Book Covers
Mouse Pads
Mouse Pads
Birthday Cakes
Birthday Cakes

Four color printing can also be referred to as:

  • Digital printing
  • Four color process
  • Four color printing
  • CMYK printing
  • CMYK process

No matter how you call it, your design will really pop with this printing method. It makes for an eye-catching and vibrant final product, whether it’s a magazine cover or a birthday cake!

Do you want to learn more about how digital printing is used for promotional products?

Check out this video!

What is CMYK Printing?

You will sometimes hear full color printing referred to as the CMYK process. This stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black – the colors used to create the printed images.

Cyan
Cyan
Magenta
Magenta
Yellow
Yellow
Black
Black
Color grid https://www.shutterstock.com/blog/process-color-vs-spot-color

In digital printing, the images are formed on a computer using a collection of dots in some combination of these four colors. A certain percentage of one color paired with a certain percentage of another will yield a new color. For example, 100% cyan with 100% magenta produces a violet color.

This collection of dots ends up forming one solid image that is eventually printed onto a product like a t-shirt, sticker, or poster via lasers or inkjet printers. Screens can also be used to transfer the image onto the product.

Cyan, magenta, yellow, and black can be combined to form a crazy number of colors. You can’t even tell those were the only four colors used when looking at the final printed image!

Did you know?

The CMYK color set was introduced by the Eagle Printing Ink Company in 1906.

What’s the Difference Between Spot Color and Process Color?

CMYK (also known as process colors) isn’t the only way to print full color images. Spot colors can also be used. The difference between the two is broken down below:

Spot Color | Process CMYK Color https://lenashore.com/2015/11/whats-the-difference-between-spot-and-process-printing

Spot Colors

  • The printer only has to be ran one time to transfer the image to the surface
  • The ink is either one single pure color or a mix of a bunch of different colors other than cyan, magenta, yellow, or black
  • Formed without the use of dots
  • More expensive to print

Process Colors

  • The printer has to be ran multiple times to transfer the image to the surface
  • The ink is some combination of cyan, magenta, yellow, or black
  • Formed with dots
  • Less expensive to print

The quality of the final full color image will be affected by whether spot or process colors are used. With spot colors, the image is going to be accurate and consistent every time it’s printed. Process colors, on the other hand, will result is some color variation from printer to printer.

What is Pantone?

What is Pantone? https://www.pantone.com/products/graphics/color-bridge-uncoated

Pantone is a good example of spot colors. This color matching system has been around since 1963 and provides an exact code for your ink, giving you accuracy in the colors you’re printing.

Starbucks https://www.pinterest.com/pin/130534089175961077

Pantone is especially important when it comes to printing logos. Can you imagine a different green behind the Starbucks mermaid? It would change the image and would also hurt the consistency we’ve come to expect from their brand.

If you have a distinct logo like Starbucks, spot colors are worth the investment. They ensure you always get the same shade, no matter what printer is used.

Starbucks https://www.pinterest.com/pin/130534089175961077
PMS Color Matcher

Find your image’s exact Pantone color with the PMS Color Matcher from Quality Logo Products®!

PMS Color Matcher

What Are Some Other Full Color Printing Methods?

Aside from digital printing, there are other ways to transfer a full color image onto a surface. This includes:

  • Direct to garment (DTG) printing
  • Offset printing
  • Dye sublimation

#1: Direct to Garment (DTG) Printing

Direct to garment printing is used specifically for textiles. The garment is held in place and special water-based inks are sprayed on by hand. The ink then soaks into the fibers of the t-shirt, bag, or other piece of apparel, forming the final design.

DTG printing is commonly used on:

Fabric
Fabric
Vinyl
Vinyl

#2: Offset Printing

Offset printing, also referred to as lithography, is a four color process where the inked image is transferred from a printing plate to a rubber cylinder and then applied to a surface. This process is used by a variety of industries when it comes to commercial printing.

Offset printing is commonly used on:

Leather
Leather
Metal
Metal
Wood
Wood
Cardboard
Cardboard

#3: Dye Sublimation

This method allows full color images to be printed onto all kinds of surfaces. Unlike the traditional four color process, dye sublimation involves printing a design onto transfer paper instead of screens. Special machines then use a combination of heat and pressure to press the paper onto the item.

Dye sublimation is commonly used on:

Polyester
Polyester
Cork
Cork
Ceramics
Ceramics
Cardboard
Cardboard

No matter which method is used, the full color printer isn’t like the one sitting on your desk at home. It’s a lot bigger in scale and can work on hundreds of products at a time.

Dye Sublimation Vs. Heat Transfer Printing

Digital sublimation is fairly similar to another process known as heat transfer. The biggest difference is dye sublimation is best for only polyesters, whereas heat transfer can be used on either cotton or polyester.

This chart breaks it all down:

Dye Sublimation

The design is created when heat is applied to specialty transfer paper

Best for polyesters only

Recommended for white or light-colored garments

Great for full color images

Works for a variety of non-fabric products like coasters, jewelry, mugs, puzzles, etc.

More expensive and durable

Heat Transfer

The design is created when heat is applied to specialty transfer paper

Works on cottons or polyesters

Recommended for black or dark-colored garments

Great for single color images

Works for fabric products like clothes, aprons, oven mitts, towels, etc.

Less expensive and durable

Think about what each method offers before choosing either dye sublimation or heat transfer. Either option is a good choice, it just depends on your budget and what you’re looking to print.

Why Does it Cost More to Print in Color?

Printing in full color rather than just black and white costs more money due to the number of ink cartridges that are used. There’s a cost for the ink to be prepared, digitally rendered, and ran through the machine.

However, that isn’t to say you won’t be able to afford this printing method, especially as a business owner. These promotional products are printed in full color, and you can get over 100 of them for less than $500.

People understand the value of printing in color. With that said, the cost for the ink is usually included in the final price. It may be a little more costly than black or white, but it can still be pretty affordable.

Recap: What You Need to Know About Full Color Printing

All this terminology may be making your head spin. Here’s a short and sweet rundown of what you need to know:

Color Picker

Full color printing is used to create colorful logos or photos.

Search bar

There are many names for full color printing including: digital printing, four color printing, the four color process, CMYK printing, and the CMYK process.

Color chart

CMYK is also known as process colors. These are cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.

Paint buckets

Spot colors are also used in full color printing, though they aren’t formed by cyan, magenta, yellow, or black dots.

Gears

The full color images are printed onto a product through digital printing, offset printing, direct to garment printing, or dye sublimation.

You should now have a better grasp of full color printing. It’s a great option for a variety of things – t-shirts, package design, posters, stamps, and of course, promotional products!

The Bottom Line

Full color printing is used to create the books and magazines you like to read, the greeting cards you buy for birthdays, and the promotional swag you use for your business. It’s truly a work of art!

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa Mertes

Alyssa is the Lead Copywriter at Quality Logo Products. As a promo expert, she's uncovered the world's first custom tote bag, interviewed the guy behind rock band ACDC's logo, and had a piece published by the Advertising Specialty Institute, a leader in the promotional products industry.

References

Pantone. Spot vs. Process Color. Retrieved September 10, 2019, from
https://www.pantone.com/color-intelligence/articles/technical/spot-vs-process-color

Clem, A. (2018, May 3). Process Color vs. Spot Color: What You Need to Know. Retrieved September 10, 2019, from
https://www.shutterstock.com/blog/process-color-vs-spot-color

Beaty, K. Printing Lingo: What is 4-Color Process Printing? Retrieved September 10, 2019, from
https://www.formaxprinting.com/blog/2018/09/printing-lingo-what-is-4-color-process-printing/

Smith, E. (2017, April 18). CMYK All the Way. Retrieved September 11, 2019, from
https://tedium.co/2017/04/18/color-printing-lithography-history

Vlahos, J. (2018, October 19). Offset Printing Vs. Digital Printing | Printing Terminology 101. Retrieved September 11, 2019, from
https://www.printi.com/blog/offset-printing-vs-digital-printing

Encyclopedia Britannica. Offset Printing. Retrieved September 11, 2019, from
https://www.britannica.com/technology/offset-printing

Big Acrylic. The Difference Between Dye Sublimation and Digital Printing. Retrieved September 12, 2019, from
https://www.bigacrylic.com/difference-dye-sublimation-digital-printing

Gifford, J. DTG vs. Screen Printing. Retrieved September 12, 2019, from
https://www.formaxprinting.com/blog/2018/09/printing-lingo-what-is-4-color-process-printing/

Maurer, M. Heat Transfer Paper vs. Sublimation Printing. Retrieved September 13, 2019, from
https://www.coastalbusiness.com/blog/heat-transfer-paper-vs-sublimation.html