Color by the Numbers Written by Randy Freeman

Sussex, WI--February 2005--There’s probably no maxim that causes more anxiety in the print world than “color exists only in our heads.” However, it is a fact that the world isn’t colored; we only see it that way. And the way we see colors offers limitless opportunity for dispute: When does orange become bittersweet, poppy, tangerine? Perhaps no other industry has more to gain from being able to eliminate the subjective nature of “seeing” color than the print industry.

Moving from mind to market. The subjective nature of communicating and matching colors comes into play at every point of the print supply chain cycle. No two people see color in the same way because each brings a different emotional response to the same stimulus. Age, gender, past experiences, even fatigue and mood affect color perception. And, if you’re the one man in 12 or the one woman in 200 who is color blind, your color experience is limited.

In addition to perception, color is also affected by illumination. When Isaac Newton first unraveled the rainbow by describing its colors as due to properties of the rays that compose light sources, he began a tug-of-war between art and science as applied to color. A century after Newton, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe maintained that colors should be measured by their emotional impact – consider how a red car appears much speedier than a blue one. Today, we know that both sides of the argument hold merit.

Just as fundamental is the constant perceptual interaction among colors by contrast or assimilation. Place a circle next to a triangle, and they remain what they are. But a blue color placed beside a strong red veers toward the green. Two objects placed side by side in an ad may profoundly modify each other’s colors. There’s also the problem of metamerism – two objects that appear the same under one light source are unlikely to match when viewed under another source. In the end, there’s no reliable sense in which we can speak of a color “as it really is” because it’s always determined by its context.

Color printing by numbers. To accommodate the real-world variables that make up colorant conditions, today’s successful printer applies both Newtonian and Goethean ideas. Understanding the emotional response to color, we seek to rise to the challenge of consistently generating the precise shade of puce lipstick the designer envisions. Today’s color management tools play out Newton’s theories that colors can be represented by numbers. With critical measurements of color attributes at a press operator’s fingertips, we can virtually eliminate subjective and varying perceptions of color, as well as close the color space differences between monitor screens and digital proofing (RGB) and the printing color space (CMYK).

To achieve accurate, consistent color, best practices for presswork process control call for the measurement of solid ink density, dot gain, print contrast, trap and gray balance. Traditionally, printers have focused on ink density as the best road to get to accurate color. But, according to System Brunner, the world’s leading color specialists, the real secret to mastering color control is controlling gray balance.

QuadTech and System Brunner are moving closer to eliminating subjectivity in the pressroom. In addition to Globalstandard System Brunner,® printing parameters to meet SWOP, Gracol, TR001 and ECI targets can be programmed into a system to offer unparalleled match of proof on press.

Seeing eye-to-eye with grays. When the eye sees more than one color tone at the same time, it’s influenced and confused by the different contrasts. System Brunner’s research reveals that midtone color balance variations are more strongly perceived by the viewer than any other variable. Even when color balance variations measure as equal, our eyes may not perceive them equally. Sensitivity is reduced when we’re faced with strong picture contrasts, especially if they consist of saturated colors. Likewise, it’s increased with low-contrast color areas.

Because the eye easily detects any shift from neutrality when neutral areas are compared side-by-side, gray balance can be used to assess color objectively. When gray balance is inaccurate and the light to dark axis of the color space is not aligned properly with a relative neutral, then all colors will shift and reproduce with a color cast. Gray balance can be applied to the entire print process, from photography to proofing devices and printed piece.

According to System Brunner, the world’s leading color specialists, the real secret to mastering color control is controlling gray balance.

Show your true colors. For those of us in the print business, it’s essential to understand the inherent limitations in our perceptions of color. Because color serves as a fundamental indicator of quality, delivering material that is off-color risks future business. Failing to get the color right the first time drives up costs. Advanced technology can deliver new efficiencies when it comes to moving printed color products from mind to market.

For more information about state of the art color control, visit

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About BALDWIN | Vision Systems (formerly QuadTech)

BALDWIN’s Vision Systems division is the world’s leading innovator of advanced color and inspection technology for the printing industry. BALDWIN | Vision Systems sells its automated control systems in more than 100 countries to the packaging and converting markets, web offset newspaper and commercial markets, and publication gravure market. BALDWIN maintains a worldwide network of sales and service operations, and is privately owned by BW Forsyth Partner, the investment arm of multi-billion dollar global manufacturing and engineering consulting firm Barry-Wehmiller.


Craig Du Mez, BALDWIN | Vision Systems
Phone: +1 414 566 7500

Clare Porter, Bespoke
Phone: +44 (0) 1737 215200