Marshall Atkinson explains how to reduce the number of print colours without sacrificing quality

Less can be more when it comes to colour sometimes. Think about the number of colours your shop offers for printing. Artists typically always want to use more, because hey…that’s what is going to make the design better. Right? While that certainly can be true, it also adds some complexity to the job that might not be needed. More colour can equal a higher price. Is the job out for bid? Instead of five colours, can you do it in three? More colour can also add to production time. For example, how many more jobs a day could your crew print if there were fewer screens to set up? You don’t have to sacrifice great design either. There are plenty of tricks you can do that will provide impact and punch to the design. Let’s take a look at a few.

Less colour/thinned ink

This has to be one of my favourite tricks in my design bag. I love using curable reducer. While there are plenty of folks that are constantly talking about the need for opacity, let’s champion a completely opposite mindset: Translucency. This simply means we can see what’s underneath the ink. This can be another printed colour, a pattern on the shirt, or a texture of the shirt. To me, this can be far more interesting than an opaque ink colour. It looks more natural and authentic. It also prints with a softer hand, which is all the rage currently.

There are plenty of tricks that will provide impact and punch to the design

Distressed graphics

An always popular look is vintage and distressed. Nothing works better for this than reducing the ink and letting something underneath show through. For example, let’s say you are printing on a heather blue T-shirt with white ink. If you reduce that white ink down, it has an almost chalkboard-like feel to it on the heather blue shirt. Pair that with a hand-drawn design or font, and you have an instant classic. What’s great about curable reducer is the more you add to the ink, the more translucent
the ink becomes. As the name suggests, it cures like it is a regular ink. A lot of shops call this ‘thinned ink‘. It looks faded and old. Worn. Another popular choice for me is what I call ‘smoke‘ ink. I’ve written about this before [see the February 2016 issue of Images] Throw some dark coloured old inks in a bucket, then add the same amount of black. Stir it up. Add about double curable reducer to the mix. Stir it up. You should get a translucent dark colour. The more reducer you add, the more transparent the ink will get.

Instead of using white ink on that shirt, try using smoke. This will shadow that shirt colour to a darker shade. On a shirt that is red, it will look maroon. For royal blue, it will look navy. Similar to the white ink formula with curable reducer, the more additive you stir in, the more translucent the mixture becomes. Smoke ink is the absolute best drop shadow you will ever use. What’s great is you can use the same screen and ink with multiple shirt colours and not have to change ink colours. This will quickly become your go-to colour for any drop-shadow effect. Plus this has zero hand, as it is basically all reducer. It‘s also a great way to use up those PMS colours that you used for that one job a year and a half ago and haven’t touched since. Reduced ink like this is the perfect solution for printing over a hoodie seam or pocket. Couple that with a distressed texture, and it’s a winner.

Add some drama with speciality inks


Another popular choice for designers is to overprint one colour on another to produce a third colour. Using thinned inks makes this easy. On press, print the lighter colour first. You can either flash it or leave it wet. Flashing locks in that colour as a base and will prevent the following ink from mixing in that colour. But sometimes that’s what you want. For example, take a peek at this design [Taunton Family Festival, above] I made a few years ago. The smoke plate is used to overprint the red, blue and white plates to produce darker areas in each for the texture I wanted. On red, this shows up as maroon. On blue, it’s navy, and on white, it appears grey. This print only used one white, and the screen with the smoke ink was printed last without flashing. Engineering your art this way produces more colour on the shirt, but takes less time to set up and print. It also reduces your colour count and makes your quote to your customer cheaper – so maybe you will win that order!

Another less-ink tip: traditional halftones

Halftones have been around for a very long time. While the invention of halftone photomechanical process cannot be attributed to one person, William Henry Fox Talbot patented the first use of halftones for textiles in 1852. In your shop, using halftones can be a great way to add more dimension to your design without adding any extra production cost. Let’s say you are working on a design and want to add another colour to separate the primary element from a secondary one. Sure, you can use another colour for that secondary idea – but what if you used a halftone instead? My question to you is this: “Do you really need that second colour?“

It’s a good question to ask. A lot of shops have their production colour count hijacked by their art department. The creative minds want that extra ink colour because it’s a colour quality thing to them. This usually starts when customer service or sales give up that control with the question: “Hey, how many colours is this?” Suddenly that image you thought was three or four colours is now six. Or eight. Of course, there are eight colours in that design. But if we use some halftones in a few we can get the colour count down to a manageable (and sometimes ‘affordable to the customer’) level. Printing halftones can be tricky for some shops though. There are entire books and video series dedicated to this subject. If you want to be the best at this, I would recommend Mark Coudray’s Halftone Mastery Course.

Colour hierarchy

In your design, the colours you choose can have a dramatic impact on the overall design. Bolder colours are naturally going to come forward, weaker colours will recede. It’s how our eyes see things. Sometimes though, I’ve seen designs where the colour balance is completely out of whack. And it’s not the intentional ‘someone breaking the rules because they are creative‘ kind. You don’t need a lot of colours if you play your cards wisely and throw in a halftone or two for some screens.

Reduce the number of print colours without sacrificing quality

Duotones, tritones and quadtones

Yep. Two-, three- and four-colour jobs. The basis for about 75-80% of the work in the T-shirt screen printing industry. But, when that shop gets that 10- or 12-colour press, suddenly the colour counts go dramatically skyward. With some good Photoshop manipulation, you can make that complicated design simpler colour- wise and pare it down to only a few plates. It might even lend itself to some funky expression. Instead of printing that photo in eight or 10 colours, what if you used two? One was purple and the other orange? Pink and royal blue? Okay, throw in a black plate too, just for the contrast. The point here is that you can make that image work with fewer plates, and be creative at the same time.

Speciality inks

Want more drama? There is an entire line of inks out there that can certainly help you punch things up. Adding texture or dimension to your inks is a time-honoured tradition in this industry. When was the last time you thought about using some? Throw some puff additive in that colour for your outline around the text. Printing a design with something in the image that would be made of glass or water or chrome? Use a hit of gloss clear. And let’s not forget the awesomeness of using metallic inks. Liquid silver or gold on a black shirt. ‘Nuff said.

A lot of shops, especially beginners, tend to not think about these as design choices when discussing and planning the job with their customers. It’s like they haven’t learned the vocabulary yet. Do yourself a favour and order some specialty inks, bases or additives from your ink supplier. Get a sample kit or two. Play around with them and learn how to use them. More importantly, learn when to use them. Speciality inks could be just the ticket for that next job.

Marshall Atkinson is a leading production and efficiency expert for the decorated apparel industry, and the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC. Marshall focuses on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management and sustainability. He is a frequent trade show speaker, article and blog author, and is the host of InkSoft’s The Big Idea podcast.