Designing To A T – Working Within Your Color Palette For Screen Printing

“Buffalo Soldier” is an illustration by Tony Kukla. Since it was designed specifically for Sigler’s 2017-2018 promotional calendar, it was created in CMYK color mode for offset printing.

So what do you do if you want to feature this design on apparel?

Traditional screen printing requires artwork designed in spot colors so you’ll likely need to modify your design. In screen printing, each individual color requires its own screen mesh. Inks are then pushed through the screens one color at a time onto the apparel – much like a stencil. The number of colors in your design affects the cost of your project because each color requires its own screen and setup time. Reduce the number of colors, and reduce the price!

Our conversation with Tony went something like this. We asked Tony to give us a quick visual breakdown using “Buffalo Soldier” as an example. He will reduce the CMYK design down to 6, 4, 3, 2, and just 1 spot color. He’ll also mention a few tricks and techniques to get the most out of a limited color palette.

The original illustration in CMYK color mode:

Tony: I typically design for apparel and promo items where color usage is limited. Knowing that this particular design would print on an offset printing press (in CMYK, it was nice to splurge on extra colors, gradients, and intricate details. Below you can see the separation of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black – which are the core colors that overlay one another for CMYK printing. Offset printing, also called offset lithography, or litho-offset, in commercial printing, widely used printing technique in which the inked image on a printing plate is printed on a rubber cylinder and then transferred (i.e., offset) to paper or other material.

Reduced to 6 spot colors:

Tony: Notice how similar this design is to the CMYK original? By utilizing halftones and overprints, I was able to simulate additional colors without USING extra colors. It can be as simple as using a 35 percent transparency over an existing color or having it blend from one color to another. This visually tricks the eye – especially when viewed at a distance. Similar to pointillism, you’ll notice individual dots of one color with the other color behind it. This is how the light brown, gray shading, and midtone yellows were achieved.

Reduced to 4 spot colors:

Tony: Here I’ve reduced the design to 4 spot colors, still using halftones and overprints to create the darker green shadows on the jacket and the light brown highlights on the face. With screen printing, the dots are a much larger size than in paper printing, making them more noticeable to the eye. If the design isn’t large enough, the halftone dots can actually muddy your color – making it look dirty instead of simulating a new hue. If you’re not a fan of halftone dots, solid color is the way to go. When in doubt, give us a call and we can work together to achieve the effect you are going for.

Reduced to 3 spot colors:

Tony: At 3 colors, you really need to play with the color combinations. Since “Buffalo Soldier” is a military theme, I thought a monochromatic color palette was a perfect fit. This is a great example of letting the color of the garment act as an additional color.

We chose the 3 spot-color design and screen printed it on a super soft, camouflage Alternative® Apparel t-shirt.

Reduced to 2 spot colors:

Tony: At 2 colors, minimal use of a high contrast color can create highlights that really make your design pop. Get creative. Simplified doesn’t have to equal boring.

Reduced to 1 spot color:

Tony: 1 color designs typically have a larger variety of sizes and print crisper than multi-colored designs at smaller sizes. However, the contrast between your garment and your spot color is very important – especially for designs featuring characters or people. Make sure you don’t inadvertently create the illusion of a photo negative. If your design will be screen printed on both light and dark garments, you may need (2) separate designs using an “ink change” to avoid that problem.


Tony: Below is the exact same 1 color design on a light garment with dark ink. With a few adjustments, you can vastly improve your design. Pay special attention to your eyes!

Thanks, Tony! As you can see, each design has its own aesthetic. Your budget may dictate your choices and the color of the garment certainly plays a vital role as well. The key is to optimize your design and make sure all the elements work together well.

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