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Four Color VS Spot Color: What Is the Difference

Dive into the colorful realm of printing with a comprehensive guide to spot color and four-color printing. Uncover the secrets of Pantone colors, understand the nuances between CMYK and spot inks, and learn how these techniques bring your designs to life on paper. Embark on a journey where accuracy meets creativity, and explore the artistry of printing like never before.

Table of Contents

In the printing world, we often talk about two key terms: four-color printing and spot color printing. These terms are crucial in the realm of printed materials, but many people aren’t sure when to use each method. Let’s break down the concepts, differences, and applications of spot color printing and four-color printing.

Four-color Printing

Four-color printing,also known as CMYK printing, relies on CMYK inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) to create the desired colors. Essentially, it mixes these four colors in varying amounts to achieve a wide range of colors. If you see gradients in a color, it’s likely printed using the four-color process. This method uses dot overlay, which is visible under a magnifying glass.

Spot Color Printing

On the other hand, spot color printing, also known as Pantone color printing, uses inks beyond the standard CMYK set to replicate specific colors from the original document. It’s commonly used in packaging to print solid background colors. Spot color printing doesn’t involve gradients; instead, it creates solid patterns without visible dots under magnification. However, spot color printing typically costs a bit more than four-color printing.

Pantone colors expand the printable color range beyond what CMYK can achieve. They include metallic and fluorescent colors. Spot color printing becomes necessary when you need special colors like metallic or fluorescent ones that CMYK alone can’t reproduce.

Spot color printing requires specialized printing equipment found in professional printing facilities, unlike everyday laser printers. These printing machines are designed for precision and accuracy in reproducing spot colors effectively.

Spot color chart

When a designer picks a color from the Pantone guide for printing, the printing factory has to use its equipment and inks to match that color exactly. Both the designer and the factory should use the same year’s Pantone guide because colors with the same code can vary slightly between different versions.
Heidelberg Speedmaster

This is a Heidelberg Speedmaster four-color printing press. The machine’s four silver pillars are actually four monochrome printing units, each corresponding to printing one color. Typically, color printing involves CMYK four-color overlay printing, and ordinary print jobs can be handled by this type of machine.

This is the top of one of the pillars. Inside the ink fountain is yellow ink, corresponding to the ‘Y’ in CMYK. After the roller picks up the ink, it transfers it to the printing plate, which then rolls onto the paper to make the print.
Heidelberg 6-color printing press

Heidelberg 6-color printing press

Spot Color Printing Applicable Products

Spot color printing is commonly used for packaging, book covers, and brochure covers that have uniform or gradient color blocks and text in various colors. These elements can be printed using either four-color process inks or spot color inks, where a specific spot color ink is used only for certain areas. Spot color printing is often chosen to improve print quality and reduce the number of printing passes. In packaging, it’s particularly useful for printing large background colors.

Four-color Printing Applicable Products

Four-color printing is suitable for color photographs, colorful paintings, or images with many colors. These artworks often require color separation using electronic color separation machines or color desktop systems. The images are then printed using the four-color printing process due to technical or cost considerations.

Differences Between Spot Color and Four-Color Printing

Spot Color Printing:

  • Colors have lower brightness but higher saturation.
  • Uniform color blocks are often printed using solid printing, requiring an appropriate increase in ink volume.
  • Thick ink layers in spot color printing result in consistent and solid color blocks.
  • Changes in ink layer thickness are less sensitive to color variations due to the increased ink volume, resulting in more uniform and dense printing effects.

Four-color Printing

  • Color blocks produced using the four-color printing process are prone to changes in color intensity due to variations in ink layer thickness and printing process conditions.
  • Changes in dot enlargement can lead to color variations.
  • Achieving uniform ink coverage is challenging in four-color printing due to these factors.
Four-color Printing

From an economic perspective, the choice between spot color and four-color printing often depends on whether spot color printing can reduce the number of printing passes. This reduction in passes not only saves printing costs but also reduces prepress production expenses.

For products with both colorful images and large background colors, a combination approach can be used: utilizing four-color printing for the colorful images and spot color printing for the large background colors.

Spot Color Inks

Spot color inks are pre-mixed specific colored inks, like fluorescent yellow, pearl blue, metallic gold, and silver inks. They are not created by combining CMYK colors; using spot colors ensures accurate colors.

Spot Color Inks

It has the following three characteristics:

  1. Accuracy:
    Each spot color has a fixed hue, ensuring accurate color reproduction in printing and solving color accuracy issues to a large extent.
  2. Solid Colors:
    Spot colors are defined by solid colors, regardless of how light or dark they are. Of course, spot colors can also be tinted to create various shades.
  3. Wide Color Gamut:
    The colors in the spot color library have a wide color gamut, exceeding that of RGB and even CMYK color spaces. This means many colors cannot be replicated using CMYK inks alone.


In the colorful world of printing, spot color and four-color techniques dance together, each bringing its unique hues to the canvas of creativity. Whether it’s the precise accuracy of spot colors or the vibrant complexity of four-color printing, the artistry of printing knows no bounds. So, let’s continue exploring the endless possibilities and creating captivating prints that ignite the imagination.

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