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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

2. Switch to your Layers Docker and copy the flesh selection from the merged layer.

3. Create a new Alpha Channel and make sure it is white (inverting it, if necessary).

4. Paste your layer selection into the new Alpha Channel. Use the Paste in Place command to make sure the selection doesn’t re-center or move from its original position.

5. Use the Curves menu to adjust the midtone of the selection and increase the opacity.

6. Create a second layer and paste in the same information. Use the Curves menu to squeeze out the low and middle tones to create a shadow channel. This channel is commonly a dark brown for shadows on flesh.

7. The third layer is your black outline layer. This layer is where the darkest shadows and things like nostrils, ear holes, eyebrows, and mouths can be defined. The darkest areas can be obtained by using a color range to pull the black areas or using Curves and saving only the darkest areas in the copied image.

8. Add a highlight white or bright flesh color area. This is commonly created using the Color Range tool to select just the brightest white or flesh areas. (Pro tip: Select highlights in the flesh only while your selection of the flesh areas is already active. This way, you’ll get highlights that are just for the flesh areas and not for the rest of the image.)

9. Review your flesh tones and see if you need to pull any additional colors for a light blush layer or a color cast from a lighting effect in the image. Often, it is beneficial to pull flesh tones first before doing these effects so you can lightly apply them later – too much and it’ll look obvious and harsh.

10. Separate the rest of your image and see if you can use any of your flesh tones in other areas of the image to save colors on your print.


One thing to consider with screen printed flesh tones is that you will almost always have some amount of dot gain on press. This means that any delicate areas in your flesh tones could rapidly darken after only a couple dozen shirts. A light red percentage on the cheeks can become a red blob if there is a lot of dot gain. Keeping an eye out during separation for even a small percentage of colors that could gain can save a printer from having to scrap shirts, especially if the face images are critical in appearance and color shifts would cause issues with the client (see Figure 5). The best ways to combat dot gain are to adjust the midtones of the separations and to prevent colors from stacking up on one another to make sure your total ink volume stays down. The rest is up to the production crew to manage.

A final consideration that can make things a little scarier is the addition of strange color overlays, transparencies, or special effects (see Figure 6). When designs go outside the ordinary, it may require some additional steps to integrate the hues of, for instance, a decaying zombie with a lot of green and yellow tones. For the most part, you can use the same process to separate these types of images, adding more steps along the way to blend special effects into the flesh tone separations.

FIGURE 6. “Specialty” flesh tones can add some complexity to the separation process, but the steps are essentially the same, and the results are well worth it. The author’s original sketch [left], final design file [center], and printed shirt [right, courtesy of Rokkitwear].

Getting realistic flesh tones in a screen print can be a standard process that won’t cause you nightmares; it just takes a little practice. Soon enough, you’ll never have to run from flesh separations again.

Check out more from Thomas Trimingham or explore the rest of Screen Printing's October/November 2017 "Fearsome Flesh Tones" issue.


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