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Separating Flesh Tones – Without the Horror

(October/November 2017) posted on Tue Oct 17, 2017

Transforming skin hues into printable graphics is a nightmare designers might shy away from, but with patience and the right preparation, it doesn’t have to be.

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By Thomas Trimingham

Separating graphics with flesh tones can be a scary proposition. Flesh is what’s known as a reference (or memory) color; textures like skin, wood, metal, grass, water, and sky are difficult to replicate because most people have seen them thousands of times and can quickly detect if the colors are off. The more reference colors a design has, the harder it will be to print.

And flesh tones are perhaps the worst of the reference colors. The way that flesh reflects light can vary incredibly, depending on hundreds of different factors, yet viewers can still easily detect if an overall color cast on flesh is wrong. If flesh is too green or yellow, it may look sick or decayed; if it’s too red, it may look like the person is overheated or has high blood pressure.

The way to take the fear out of flesh tone separation is to prepare: Analyzing and color-correcting the image before separating the graphic will prevent a major headache later. The next step is to strategically separate the design in consideration of the depth of color and values in the flesh.

Because separating images with flesh tones can vary so much from one design to another, it’s useful to minimize the variety of colors that are interacting in the design. Some designs with flesh tones may appear fairly flat in color, while other images have a large shift in value, hue, and shadows depending on the lighting in the source images (see Figure 1).

It’s critical to review the quality of the image prior to prepping it. There are several things to look at before beginning any color separation, and these are particularly important when dealing with flesh tones; any image quality problems will become magnified as the image is split into different colors. The last thing you want is to separate an image with a face in it and find out when it hits the press that there are a bunch of red dots in your skin tones.


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