Pantone and CMYK may sound like clothing lines…but they’re not.

By Winn Apple   |   Published May, 2013

No, Donna Karen has not developed a sibling clothing line to DKNY; but it certainly sounds plausible. With a few cocktails under your belt, I bet you could convince a few folks that this is indeed 100% true.

“So what exactly are Pantone and CMYK?” you ask.

They are standardized systems of color –systems which assigns numerical values to the endless variations of color and shade that exist. These numerical values are essentially a recipe without which consistency would be nearly impossible. Try passing on your grandma’s famous shortbread cookie recipe without including measurements. Ridiculous…right!

“Who needs standardized systems?” you scoff. “I’m a freewheeling kinda soul.”

Well, the Scotts for one need it! That poor ole National flag of theirs has been depicted in more shades of blue than a Lineolated Parakeet.

It was this broad variation in shades of blue which inspired the Scottish Parliament to adopt the Pantone –or – PMS 300 as the standard color of their National Flag. Until 2003, when the ruling was passed down, the flags background ranged from sky blue to navy blue. Saint Andrew would certainly not be pleased with the inconsistent representation of the image conceived to pay tribute to him – their patron saint.

Pantone, which began as a commercial printing company in the 1950’s, hired a very bright young man by the name of Lawrence Herbert, who used his chemistry knowledge to systematize and simplify the company’s stock of pigments and production of colored inks – creating a precise and reliable way to communicate color. Ahhhh, now the numerical attributes make sense. Those clever scientists!

Now that we have covered what Pantone – aka PMS – and CMYK are, let’s discuss for a moment the difference between the two.

Pantone – aka PMS – tends to get cranky once a month is not the answer…smarty pants!

CMYK colors are created using four “ink guns” – cyan, magenta, yellow and black. Each of the four colors are deposited separately – one at a time – onto the paper, in various ratios, during the printing process. If you look through a magnifying glass at material printed in CMYK, you will see tiny dots of color. Imagine the famous pointillist painting by Seurat, “A Sunday Afternoon on La Grande Jatte”, this painting, as were all paintings in this style, was created with dots of color. The technique relies on the ability of the eye and mind of the viewer to blend the color into a fuller range of tones. Consider CMYK the pointillist artist of printing.

In contrast, Pantone colors are referred to as spot colors – a color generated by an ink (pure or mixed) that is printed using a single gun. Take that same magnifying glass you used to inspect your CMYK color and take a gander at a printed Pantone color. It will look smooth. Ofcourse there are some exceptions, when a Pantone printed piece will appear spotted or textured, but we’ll just save that for another discussion.

Pantone creates an enormous range of color for consumers to select from, many of which are complex enough that they must be blended by the company to achieve exactness. Others are mixed by your printer, prior to printing, based on the recipe and colors supplied by Pantone – an art in and of itself, which requires a high level of expertise.

In addition, Pantone colors utilize 13 base pigments (15 including black and white) mixed in specific amounts to achieve the spot colors they design – while CMYK has but 4 measly colors to work with. You shouldn’t feel sad for CMYK –the majority of the world’s printed material is produced using this system. It’s a super star and what’s more it can be used on digital and offset presses. Pantone, aka PMS, is a bit more persnickety; she only likes the offset printer.

In that I don’t want to overwhelm you with information, we’ll touch on one last distinction between these dueling systems – color range. Pantone has 1,114 spot colors that cannot be reproduced using the CMYK system. Though many can be mimicked by that crafty ole CMYK, the result will not satisfy the discerning eye of some designers.

Pantone did loosen up a bit over time in 2001 and decided to share some of her tightly held secrets and provided translations of the colors with screen-based colors known as RGB (a red, green, blue system). These are the colors you see on your computer and that enormous flat screen TV you just purchased to watch Project Runway. Come on men, fess up. You’ll tune in to watch Heidi Klum.

Now I know the freewheeling part of you may not find the allure in approaching colors in such a structured way – but when you’ve completed that brilliant painting of the unicorns and rainbows dancing in the silver metallic trimmed clouds and decide that this masterpiece should don the cover of your Earth Day Celebration Card, you’ll want to feel confident that your art work translates exactly.

When that day comes and your inner Van Gogh is demanding to be expressed, printed and mailed to all your friends’, colleagues and notable art collectors, not to mention printed in the most environmentally kind way possible, contact Bacchus Press. We are experts in color reproduction, green printing and all that falls between so you won’t need to be…you lil free-wheeling artist, you!

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About the Author

In addition to crafting content and blogs, Winn Apple writes short stories and novellas for middle-grade readers. You can find her short stories along with a portfolio on her site, or on her soon to release website, – the best darn place to find short stories for kids.


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