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The Dawn of Simulated Process Color

(December/January 2017) posted on Tue Jan 16, 2018

At a time that many high-end garment printers were struggling to produce realistic images in CMYK, an artist took an entirely different approach that would eventually take the industry by storm.

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By Steve Duccilli

In our special Innovation Issue, we present a collection of expert essays on an important technology in the industry today. Here, we take a deep dive into the development of simulated process color.

Around the time that printed T-shirts were becoming the uniform for American teenagers in the mid-1970s, the artwork of the medium began to grow beyond line art and boldly lettered slogans. Litho transfers such as the iconic Farrah Fawcett swimsuit photograph created a new demand for realistic images on apparel. The problem was that litho-printed transfers were uncomfortable to wear and had terrible durability, causing them to quickly fall out of favor with consumers. 

Screen printers were poised to fill the void, but none had figured out how to get a process-color image onto a shirt. “The consensus was it couldn’t be done,” says Mark Coudray, who by the time of the litho transfer boom had changed his major at Cal Poly from mechanical engineering to graphic communication and devoted his thesis to the limitations of halftone screen printing. He began playing with process-color prints onto shirts while still at the university, quickly realizing that the halftone work of the day was being done for other printing processes at line counts that screen printing was incapable of reproducing. “I found a guy who could do separations, but the coarsest screen he had was 85 lines,” Coudray remembers, laughing, “so that’s what I had to start with.”

The award-winning Nocona Boot series, produced by Mark Coudray of Serigraphic Designs in 1979, was the first four-color process shirt to feature a highlight white.

He taught himself tricks with a process camera that gave him more suitable line counts for screen printing, but this was just the first of many obstacles. The transparency of CMYK inks – the quality that allows them to produce secondary and tertiary shades through the overlapping of halftone dots – exposed every limitation of the garment screen printing technology of the day. And there were many, from the quality of the inks, meshes, stencil systems, and printing equipment to the countless variables that had to be controlled in order to get consistent results.


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