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The Art of Color Communication

(February 2004) posted on Wed Mar 03, 2004

The ability to discuss color with clients is a skill that can make jobs run smoothly and profits flow freely. This month, Coudray explains how to fine tune your terminology.


By Mark A. Coudray

One of the biggest frustrations in dealing with color reproduction is understanding what the client really wants. Serious financial consequences result from miscommunication and misunderstanding, but you can avoid such pitfalls when you and the client speak the same language.

At the root of the problem is misuse of certain terms. I'm amazed by how many decision makers have never had any formal color training. They may have picked up buzz words and terms over the years, perhaps from designers, art directors, photographers, separators, or printers, but many of these terms are contradictory and confusing, and the client may use this language to sound knowledgeable. When you make the client-directed changes based on this irregular vocabulary, you get the response, "I don't know what I want, but that's not it." It leaves you in the expensive position of essentially throwing darts in the dark until you hit the look they're after.

The subjective nature of color judgment, such as the influence of lighting conditions, also adds to the confusion. But this month I would like to concentrate on fundamental color terms and the vocabulary clients use when they evaluate and direct color. If you create clear color communication that is understandable to all and set up a system of accountability, you'll go a long way toward satisfying picky clients.

Basic color communication

Developing a foundation of basic color terms will help keep everyone on the same page and give you the tools to ask the right questions. Doing so also will enable you to accurately translate what the client is saying into what he or she actually wants. Let's look at some terms that describe the overall image and the viewer's intent.

Area of interest This is the most important portion of the image. Is it the model or the product she's holding? Printers tend to concentrate on areas like flesh tones. It is important that you determine what the dominant area of interest is, because you do not want the model to overshadow the product--unless that's the client's intent. The area of interest isn't always clear in the original art, so you may need to digitally edit the graphic for contrast, sharpness, blur, ghosting, masking, and so forth, in order to shift balance to the most important subject matter.

Pleasing color This is an entry-level term used in four-color process. It means you get a nice green from a mixture of cyan and yellow. The precise color is not important, but variation is. Pleasing color is vague and open to interpretation. If your client asks for pleasing color, you should ask for a definition.

Memory/reference color Also referred to as an exact match, memory/reference color is another term that's completely subjective in nature. At least a dozen factors influence color matching, so an exact match cannot be produced with simple visual comparison--although this is the most common method. What is exact to you may not be exact to the client. Ask your client how to determine the match and set an allowance for variation. You'll always experience variation in color during a job run, and you can measure these changes with a colorimeter to get a Delta e value. A very tight match is 1-3 Delta e, and a close match is less than 5. If you don't have access to a color-measurement device, you'll need to arrive at some mutually agreed upon method to assess accuracy.

Technical color vocabulary

This next group of terms deals with actual color attributes. Understanding how these terms interrelate is the key to successful color reproduction. Many books about color theory are available if you desire to learn more, but I suggest you first become very familiar with all the terms described here. Your color knowledge has a direct effect on your success.

Hue Hue is another name for color, and it's considered a primary attribute. A hue-shifted image is out of balance, and the overall image has moved away from the desired color. Hue shifts are described as either warmer or cooler. Visualizing the color wheel or color circle is helpful in judging hue shift, and I recommend you have these tools available wherever color evaluation takes place in your shop. Hue shifts are generally attributable to improper ink densities or pressure variations on press. It's easy to make everything too cyan if you apply too much squeegee pressure to the cyan screen. When evaluating hue, ask yourself if all the colors have become too dominant in the shifted direction. If some colors are fine and others aren't, the problem lies elsewhere.

Saturation This is the purity of the color, as in pure yellow, green, red, and so forth. Other names for saturation are chroma, clean color, strong color, color strength, and chromatic. The opposite is achromatic, grayness, or absence of color. When a color has low color strength, it is said to be grayed or muddy. Natural images generally have a good amount of gray in them, and the saturation level is not at its maximum. There are exceptions, but for the most part clients tend to prefer more saturation over more grayness.

Value Value is commonly referred to as lightness or reflectance. It represents the relative amount of reflected light coming from a colored surface and is appropriate for describing printed color. It is based on a scale of white to black. Black is at the bottom of the scale, and white is at the top. If you were to desaturate (remove all color) from a light blue, it would end up being a light gray. The terms brightness and luminance often are confused with value. They accurately refer to emission of light from a source. It is possible to have a dark color with high brightness, as in an RGB pure bslue. The color has a reflected value around 60% but a brightness value of 100%. Brightness is commonly used to describe the level of pixel illumination on a computer monitor. Avoid using brightness to describe reflected values.

Contrast Contrast refers to difference. High contrast means lots of detail and a high degree of tone variation (see "Tonal range" below). High-contrast images are easy to print. The opposite is low contrast, also referred to as flat. These images are very difficult to print, lack detail, and are extremely sensitive--in a negative way--to dot gain. Most images benefit from a slight to moderate increase in contrast.

Tonal range The variation between light and dark in an image is tonal range. It spans the extreme low, black, to the extreme high, white. Tone can be related to saturation. A pure color is 100% saturated, and as you desaturate a color, you can either add white or add black to the color. Adding white is tinting, while adding black is shading. In both instances, you're reducing the strength, or purity, of the color.

The more variation in tone, the more interesting an image. Images with wide tonal variation generally have a lot going on. Tone also is used to describe detail in an image. If the image has low tonal variation, it also has very little detail. Think of a white egg against a white table cloth or a gray horse running in the fog. If you look closely at fine details, you will see massive variation in tone--especially at the objects' edges. Think blades of grass or leaves on a tree.

Tone range is anchored on either end by the white point and the black point. Every separation must have these two points determined. If the points are not preset for the specific image, the image's contrast will not be correct. The tone range between white and black is divided into five regions. They are

* highlight (0% - 20%)
* quartertone (21% - 40%)
* mid tone (41% -60%)
* three-quarter tone (61% - 80%)
* shadow (81% - 100%)

You must be able to visually determine what is happening in each tonal region for each color. Color correction often requires that a color be moved up or down the tonal scale in order to achieve the desired look.

What they say, what they mean

Clients are notorious for using slang to tell printers how they want an image to look. Here are some of the most common descriptors I hear and how I interpret them.

Clean/brighten it up, give it some snap, make it pop All of these comments refer to saturation being too low. By increasing saturation, you increase the purity of the color. Be careful not to go too far. Use the Pantone book as a guide in specific areas.

Fresh This generally refers to images with good saturation and contrast. There is good light-to-dark tone range and the color is pure. There also is good detail.

Cartoony This could mean that the image is oversaturated and lacking detail, soft color and subtle variation are gone, the color is overpowering and offensive, or the image looks artificial. Oversaturated separations, poor screenmaking (overexposed and poorly washed out), and ink drying in the screen (solvent or water-based) usually are to blame.

Reds aren't red A major problem with four-color process is that deep reds are very difficult to attain. One reason for this is that most magentas suffer from too much yellow contamination. The combination of dot gain on press and poor separation technique produces reds that tend to be more orange. Another cause is printing the magenta at too low an ink density. Good reds require a minimum magenta density of 1.35. The ink-density values are determined when the separation is made and are based on the ink-color values, dot gain, and color position. If you use default SWOP values, you may experience these problems.

Too flat The image lacks contrast. You can easily correct the problem by adjusting tonal curves to lighten the quartertones and darken the three-quarter tones.

Harsh The opposite of flat--too much contrast in the image. This is more difficult to correct because you may not have enough image information to alter. If the digital information is intact, adjust tonal curves in Photoshop. Leave the white and black points, increase quartertones, and decrease three-quarter tones. This problem usually stems from screenmaking or ink drying in the screen.

Muddy/dead The image lacks contrast and has too much gray. Correct the problem by increasing contrast and saturating the color.

Developing a clear system of color communication will help you avoid confusion and learn how to ask clients technical questions. Clients often do not know how to describe what they really want. Your job is to get them to tell you in terms that you can understand and use to create measureable results. If you establish a common color vocabulary with your clients, the percentage of successful jobs you run will increase substantially.


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