When you look at the picture at left, you probably fall into one of two camps. Either you’re hit with a powerful wave of nostalgia, or you’re shrugging your shoulders and thinking, “huh?”

You’re looking at an ink knife, a relic from the days when spot color ruled. Back in the day, printers used to use them to mix different colored inks, weighing quantities of color on a triple-beam balance to get ratios just right.


Conventional spot colors are made up of 14 base colors, which combine to form the 1,114 colors in the Pantone Matching System (PMS). These colors are pure and vibrant, but limited in range. Printers can order specific colors pre-mixed, or mix them to order by following precise formulas in Pantone’s color guide. In Oregon’s early days, we did just that.

The CMYK revolution

But today, printing with spot color is the exception, not the rule. For most jobs, it’s been replaced by 4-color process printing. Instead of laying down a single ink on paper, process printing layers inks in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. This style is sometimes called CMYK (the “K” stands for “key,” which refers to black ink).

Rather being made of solid, unbroken color, like Pantone spot colors, CMYK is made up of thousands of tiny colored dots. (See the CMYK-printed image below or look at one under a magnifying glass and you’ll see what I mean.) Its amazing, that when viewed as a whole, our eyes can perceive these dots (made up of only four colors) as any of the colors in the rainbow.

iStock_000020625115SmallMost of today’s offset printing—and the large majority of digital printing—is done using CMYK (think of the color copiers in your office as well as our production digital presses). It’s great for printing realistic color photographs, and can be done much more quickly and efficiently than spot color printing.

CMYK has enabled and encouraged lots of cool innovations in print. Best of all,because colors are keyed in digitally, colors are consistent from one job and one printer to the next. As long as your printer has your color specifications and plates are correctly aligned, you should get the right colors every time.

Why spot color still matters

We haven’t left spot color totally in the past, however. Pantone color is still a key element of many companies’ visual branding. We often create business cards and brochures in spot color—or adapt spot colors to their CMYK equivalents. But it’s important to remember that these colors can’t always be matched exactly. We work with designers and clients to find the best possible match and choose process colors that everyone is happy with.

In addition, spot color is still a printer’s best option for specialty inks, like metallics, fluorescents, and pastels. It’s not unusual for us to run a 4-color job and then add a spot color finish on top.

So despite CMYK’s near-total takeover, we’re not shutting down our spot color operations anytime soon. We’ve embraced CMYK for its consistency and efficiency. But we think demand for specialty spot color is here to stay. At least for now, we’re holding on to our ink knives. 

Got questions about using color in print? Contact Oregon anytime.