Screenprint Artist Toolbox – Pantone Color Books

Pantone color books

The second entry in my Screenprint Artist Toolbox series, today we’re talking about the Pantone Color Matching System and how to use it when it comes to screen-printing.


There’s no disputing how important color is to the screen-printing world. And when it comes to choosing colors, there’s also no disputing that most of us use Pantone’s PMS color books.

Just as with any tool, knowing how to use them correctly is what allows us to gain that extra step up on the competition. The Pantone Color Matching System is no different.

Why Do We Use Them?

Each Pantone color comes with a number along with a specific formula for how to create that color. In the case of RGB, you can get the RGB values.

For CMYK, you can get all of those values. For screen-printing, we’re given the proper values as well, leading to consistent color recreation time and again.

And let’s face it, requesting a Green 354C is much more efficient than saying, “Make it look like Kermit the Frog.”

To boot, using a number instead of having to decipher someones personal definition of what chartreuse or fuchsia looks like is a no-brainer.

How Do We Use Them?

Throughout the entire process, remembering these few points will help you take full advantage of your PMS books.

Reference it:

  • to call out your colors during the separation process.
  • before putting the ink into your screens.
  • after a print has been been cured.

To make a little more sense of that, let’s look at the process in reverse and ask a simple question.

  • After being cured – Does that color match what you’ve called out?
  • Before putting ink into the screens – Does that color match what you’ve called out?
  • During the sepping process – Is this the color I want to see printed onto the tee?

Very simply put, the color you call out during the color separating process should be the color you see on the final printed (and cured) piece.

Here are a few more tips to remember during each step that will allow you to maximize the use of your Pantone books.

  • During the seps process – Trust your book, not your monitor.
  • While mixing inks – Trust the formulas and scales, not your eye, feel or gut.
  • Viewing after cured – Inks can change a bit when curing, even migrate from the curing process. Just because you’ve checked the ink before you put it into the screen doesn’t excuse not checking it once it comes off the end of the belt.

Calling Out Pantone Colors in the Computer

For those of you who don’t know how to get these colors in Illustrator and Photoshop, fear not. It’s simple. For Illustrator, you can open the color books through your swatches palette or by WINDOWS>SWATCH LIBRARIES>COLOR BOOKS>PANTONE Solid Coated.

pantone illustrator

Finding pantone’s solid coated color book in Illustrator

Once open, activate the SHOW FIND FIELD option in order to be able to find your colors by number.

pantone illustrator

Show the find field in order to help find pantone colors more quickly

Notice the small triangle on the lower right corner of the color indicating it’s a spot color. You can now assign spot colors to your graphic.

While in Photoshop, open your color flyout by clicking on the color in your toolbar. Click on the COLOR LIBRARIES button on the lower right and then change your book to Pantone solid coated on the ensuing screen.

pantone photoshop

Finding the pantone color libraries in Photoshop

For a review on how these steps can interact with one another between the two programs, watch these tutorials on Spot Color Seps in Illustrator and Spot Color Seps in Photoshop pt1 and pt2.

Choosing a Pantone Color

pantone color

Pantone swatch 7702C

Choosing a Pantone color can seem intimidating but don’t let it get to you. Here are a few tips to help.

Don’t be afraid to make an incorrect judgement when choosing a color. Every single separator I know has to make at least one color change on more than a few of their separations once on press.  It’s just part of the game.

Reference those numbers underneath the swatch to see how much of each individual color will be used when making your choices.

At times, these numbers can help you make your decision. Remember, we’re dealing with plastic inks most of the time and opacities can (and do) vary from ink to ink.

There may be times when you don’t particularly want any red in your ink. These percentages can help you in that manner.

If comparing the book to your monitor, remember that your monitor is backlit and your book will be lit from the front, thus changing how you’re seeing the color. Your ink will also be lit from the front.

Having said that, I usually like to compare the two with the physical swatch held a little bit away and off to the side of the monitor switching my eyes back and forth between the two.

Generally speaking, comparing to your monitor really isn’t a good practice considering your monitor is probably not calibrated. Either way, we all do it so no need to hide the fact, right?

Just for fun, hold up your 7702c to the monitor and see if there’s a difference. Depending on your monitor settings alone, the results can vary by vast amounts!

Always Trust Your Book!

I cannot stress this enough. Monitors vary in color. When you choose a color in whatever program you may be using, it will almost decidedly look different than what the actual color will look like once printed.

Since you’ll be using the book to match up the inks that will eventually print onto your garments, always reference the book when calling out your final colors in the separations process.

As mentioned in my post about Wacom tablets, I like to keep things simple. In this case, throw out any trust you have in any other color model lying around. Be it your monitor, art program, print outs…everything!

At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is the color that’s going to print onto your tee. That’s why the Pantone Solid Coated color book is a major staple in my toolbox and should be in yours as well.

Notes: Pantone suggests replacing your color books once a year. The printing methods used to print them are not entirely color fast and colors may fade, rendering your books useless.

Me personally, I think it’s fine to go a full two to three years on the same book. It’s not like we’re made of money, right?

Reference Links

Don’t have a book? Get yours here.
Need to cross-reference a Pantone color, you can do that here.
Want to find a Pantone color? Visit their color finder here.

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