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Increasing Profit by Crunching Colors

(December 2007) posted on Mon Dec 10, 2007

This month, Trimingham describes how to reduce costs and presssetup time by determining the fewest number of colors required to produce a garment graphic.

click an image below to view slideshow

By Tom Trimingham

Photoshop is both unique and frustrating in the number of ways you can make a complicated area selection. You can use paths, the Magic Wand, the Lasso tool, or even paint in a channel or layer to select an area in an image. The method that works best for this type of color minimization tends to be the one that flows with the way the design is illustrated. Simpler selection tools, such as the Magic Wand or the Lasso tool, should do the trick for a design that is a simple, geometric shape.

More precise or artistic methods of selecting areas of color, such as the Path tool or, as in the example image, painting in an overlapping layer as a mask, can be more useful when the design is complex and illustrated with a texture or pattern. You can just create a layer and paint in a color that is not in the image, like a hot red or bright green, over areas that are similar in color, on similar planes, and share the same lighting values (Figure 4). Continue by making a separate layer for each area in the image that needs to be corrected. Don’t forget cool shortcuts like Ctrl-clicking on the layer to make a quick selection of the painted layer’s information and then inverting this selection and subtracting other painted layers from this (Ctrl-click on them with the Shift key depressed) to make quick selections of other areas that are around the painted layers.


Replacing colors with a simpler palette

The final step in this process is impressively easy and will often make a design look even more appealing, because it can unify images that previously looked scattered with excess colors. All you have to do at this point is make a duplicate layer of your image that is to be corrected for the sake of safety (and so you can reference or use the original as a backdrop) and then make selections from the painted mask layers by Ctrl-clicking on them (on a Mac it’s Cmd-click). With the selections active you will see the crawling ants around a rough idea of what your selection should be.

You can then open the Hue/Saturation menu and use the Colorize button and the Hue/Saturation/Lightness sliders to get a good combination for the selected area. Don’t worry if the change is too drastic looking at this point. The main idea is to get the hue and saturation right. It is rare that the lightness will need a lot of adjustment. Make sure you compare your work with the original once you’ve finished colorizing all of the selected areas in the image. If it looks like you made too much of a change, or the edited image is unappealing, then you can create a new duplicate and redo it—or lower the opacity of the edited layer and merge it with the original. Often it is this combination of a merged, colorized version and the original layer as a backdrop that provides a great compromise between a completely color-modified graphic and the original image. The edits I made to the lion reduced the number of printed colors necessary for printing to just six (Figure 5).


Consider a color crunch

The simple process of compressing the color palette for a job can save a tremendous amount of separation time in prepress and anxiety on press with color matching and unnecessary colors. The careful application of this process can enhance artwork, increase profit margins, and lower setup and ink costs. Executing this process on an image before the approval stage, so that everyone is in agreement about how the final image will be reproduced—and that the reduction in colors will produce an acceptable result—is very important, especially with established clients and high-volume orders. Color crunching will get easier the more you practice it. But the realized savings this method delivers can be apparent right away. In time, it could very likely become a standard procedure in your shop that adds to your bottom line each time you use it.


Thomas Trimingham is an awardwinning art director, illustrator, and separator who has more than 16 years of experience in the screen-printing industry. He can be reached at




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