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Printing on Colored Paper

The least complicated choice to accommodate any design challenge is to print on a white coated or uncoated sheet. You pretty much know what you’ll get. But this may not always be the most creative, inspired choice. Sometimes you can create a spectacular piece if you choose a colored paper stock.

If you do choose to venture into uncharted waters and print on a colored sheet (which in most cases will be an uncoated sheet), what decisions must you make and what considerations must you address to produce a successful printed piece?

  • First, keep in mind that the four process inks -- CMY, and K* -- are transparent. Therefore, the color of the substrate will alter the color of the printing ink. Images printed on a cream stock, for instance, will have a warmer feel because of the preponderance of yellow in the paper. This could make flesh tones appear jaundiced, so yellow needs to be taken out of the mid-tones to compensate, prior to printing.
  • Alternately, images printed on a bluish-white sheet will have less contrast and may appear a bit grey.
  • In addition, the darker the color of the paper, the more the color of the stock will influence the color of the images.
  • And if you’re printing on an uncoated, colored sheet, you have to worry about dot gain, because the ink will seep into the paper fibers and the halftone dots will spread.

With all these reasons not to print on colored paper, how can you control the outcome of this unique design decision.

First, you can ask for samples of the inks (process and PMS) on the stock you have chosen. This is called a drawdown (flat ink rolled down onto the paper). It will show you solid coverage on the paper but it will not show you how 4-color images (or anything else involving screens) will look.

Your second choice is to have your printer add some of your uncoated, colored paper at the end of a similar press run for another client. Let’s say another client is printing 4-color images or the same PMS you’re planning to use on a white gloss sheet. Your printer adds some of your paper at the end of the run, and you see how a similar job would look on your paper of choice. (This will also help you see to what extent you will have to alter the flesh tones or other hues).

A similar, but far more expensive, choice would be to request a press proof. That is, you would print a proof of your job on a smaller proof-press using your paper. Then you would make color adjustments to your electronic files. After this you would print the entire press run on a full-size press.

Or you could avoid offset altogether in proofing your job. You could find a printer with a digital press and request a few sheets digitally printed from your job files on your paper. It wouldn’t look exactly the same as offset (usually it will be produced with toner rather than ink on paper), but it will give you a reasonable idea of what to expect. This would cost $50.00 to $100.00 at most for a number of pages of your job, and it would be well worth the cost. (You could print all pages with color photos, for instance.)

This information is helpful, perhaps. However, is there any way you can minimize the effect of the colored stock on the color of your images?

In short, the answer is yes, but it’s complicated and it will require close communication with your print provider.

Opaque white, unlike the four process colors, is not transparent. Your printer can lay down two “hits” of opaque white in selected areas where your color photos will be, let the printed sheets dry, and then print your 4-color images and type in a second pass. The white will act as a barrier and will keep the paper beneath the images from altering the color of the transparent process inks. Keep in mind that this can become an expensive option, although it will keep your colors brilliant and intense, especially when you’re printing on a darker stock. (For maximum contrast, it is best to avoid wet-trapping—printing the opaque color in-line with the process colors.) Your print provider should wait for the opaque color to dry prior to printing the images and type.

It’s always prudent to involve your print provider early in any challenging printing situation, but in this case it really is essential. You need to be able to convey to your printer exactly the effect you’re looking for (show him printed samples that you like). You need to know he can alter your art files as needed to avoid odd color shifts in flesh tones or other memory colors. In short, it is important for him to have “done this before.” Otherwise you could be courting disaster.

*(C=Cyan M=Magenta Y=Yellow K=Black)


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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