How Many Colors Do You See?

how many featured

If you were to ask any average Joe how many colors they see in the image above, they would say, “Two. Red and yellow.”

If you were to ask any screen printer how many colors they see, many would say the same.

If you were to ask a color separator, they would say, “How many screens can I have to make this?”

Allow us only two screens to print the job and we’ll use red and yellow. Give us as many screens as we want and we’ll use an orange to tie it all together.

A common problem counting colors

When looking at a gradation, most people only see the two “main” colors, in this case, the yellow and red. They consider the color in between to be a result of the two main colors mixing.

While this is true in theory, this can cause a bit of confusion in the screen-printing world. Because of the screen-printing process and how we separate the images, we need to see color as it is, not as we think it should be.

To be more exact, we know this Christmas ornament is gold. But, can we print it only using gold? No. We need the shadows and highlights and all the wonderful things that let’s our eyes know this thing is round and shiny.


The different colors I would use to separate this image

More than meets the eye

Take a look at this photo of Optimus Prime by photographer John Pesina from Austin, Texas.

Optimus Prime photo by John Pesina

How many blues would you use to screen-print this?

If you were to ask someone how many colors they see on the truck, what do you think they would say?

What would you say?

Although we know (or assume) the truck’s body is a solid blue, in order to screen-print this, we wouldn’t use only one blue. No, we would have to account for the shadows and highlights and reflections and all that other funny stuff.

Change the question, change the answer

By now, I’m sure you’ve figured out that you need to see colors differently than most people do.

Instead of asking, “How many colors do you see?”, we ask, “How many colors would it take to screen-print this?”

Changing how you ask yourself this question illustrates how you have to see the world if you want to print it.

To use another car as an example, we know this is a red car. But how many colors would it take to screen-print this? Would you use only one red? A red and a pink? Two reds and a pink?

Hot rod front end

How many reds would you use to screen-print this?

How many colors vs. how many screens

It’s an age-old battle in the screen-printing world. The amount of colors we use is heavily influenced by the bottom line.

It’s easy to go with the less expensive option of printing only a yellow and halftone a red on top to trick the mind into seeing orange. However, it would look better with an added orange to help the transition between colors.

Here’s an example of this. How many colors would you have used before reading this blog post?


How many colors would you use to screen-print this? Printed by Spreeprint in Berlin, Germany

Many people might try to print only the yellow, red, and blue. This would leave the orange and purple areas to come as a result of halftoning, which would be tricky. Why not just print the orange and purple and take the guess work out of the equation? That leaves only the pink to rely on how colors “mix” with one another. Here’s how I sepped this.

color seps of parrot image

How many colors I used to screen-print the parrot image

Take a look around

Now that you’ve seen how I see colors, take a look around you. Whatever happens to come into view, ask yourself the question, “How many colors would it take to print that?”

Comments 3

  1. Your tutorial on simulated process separations of the butterfly, applies to all the above graphics. How similar would the seps be if you were to use screen print separator software?

    1. Post

      It really depends on how the color separator works. If the color separator seps using HSB techniques only, the seps might come out similar to those made by a piece of software as HSB is the only way to programmatically tell Photoshop which colors to choose. In the case of the butterfly seps I made in the tutorial you’re speaking about, the seps would be markedly different. A piece of sepping software couldn’t make the decisions I teach you to make in that tutorial.

  2. Pingback: How Would You Sep This 03 – Learn How a Pro Separator Creates His Seps – RSG

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