Choosing a Color Separation Program
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Choosing a Color Separation Program

One of the most important decisions you’ll make in your screen printing business, at least from a design perspective, is which separation program to purchase.

By Dane Clement, Great Dane Graphics/SPSI

A visit to each supplier’s Web site should give you access to downloadable demos; if not, give the supplier a call and ask for a demo CD.

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  • In the same way that every art department needs an image editor and a vector program, every department should have separation software.

    In theory, you could do separations by hand, but that’s something I haven’t done — and many screen printers haven’t done, no doubt — in at least 15 years. Similarly, you could make your way through the separation process using only Adobe Photoshop, and most people use Photoshop when creating seps “by hand” but again, it’s a time-consuming way to do things that has fallen by the wayside. Today, advances in technology, as well as lower software costs, make it possible for printers to turn out top-notch separations with surprising ease and speed. The only question is, which separation software is right for your shop?

    Getting Started
    All mainstream graphics programs have some separation capabilities, but the reality is that they’re probably not going to be accurate enough to work for your shop. They can do spot-color separations, but you won’t be able to do sophisticated color work.

    The biggest question to ask about a separation program is how well can it reproduce your original artwork? Pick a typical piece of artwork you do and run the program through its paces. You're not interested in software that requires two or three trial-and-error efforts before you get what you're looking for. Photo courtesy of Great Dane Graphics.

    It’s also important to know that most separation programs are actually plug-ins for Photoshop. In fact, only one product, Spot Process, is a stand-alone program that works without a graphics program. Prices range from about $300 to $1,000 or more, so it’s a good idea to start your selection process by using demos.

    A visit to each supplier’s Web site should give you access to downloadable demos; if not, give the supplier a call and ask for a demo CD. Generally, demos are fully functional applications that will stop working after a certain amount of time or usage — two weeks or 20 separation jobs, for instance.

    Demo in hand, peruse the owner’s manual and see if it outlines a workflow process. Also see what types of files it can handle. Does it work with RGB or CMYK files? Does the file need to be on a black-and-white background? Should it be layered? At this point, you don’t need to read the manual cover to cover. You’re just trying to glean a sense of the software’s ease of use, its learning curve, and how well it may fit with your workflow.

    The ultimate test of any separation program is in the print. Print at least a dozen samples before judging the final print. This should allow for enough ink pickup on the back side of all screens to show the true print. Photo courtesy of Classic Impressions, Pittsburgh, Pa.
    As you test drive the software, also test its results. Once you separate an image and burn screens, what do the prints look like? Are they accurate? Did achieving that accuracy take an inordinate amount of effort? In addition, print at least a dozen samples before judging the final print. This should allow for enough ink pickup on the back side of all screens to show the true print.

    Going Shopping
    Questions to consider while you demo the software and investigate your options include whether or not it fits your needs. Does your shop have a specific technique, such as index, that it prefers — and if so, can the software create seps for that process?

    For what it’s worth, I prefer software that can handle simulated process separations. I’m not interested in index separations, which can posterize the artwork and change the original, in my opinion. By posterize, I mean that the software reduces the number of colors in the artwork, taking a continuous green tone, for instance, and simplifying it dramatically.

    However, the biggest question is how well it can reproduce your original artwork. Your goal, of course, is to take a piece of artwork, print films, burn screens, and print accurately — the first time. You’re not interested in software that requires two or three trial-and-error efforts before you get what you’re looking for. The number and types of separation techniques the software can handle is not the issue. It’s really all about finding the software that creates the best separations the first time, every time, whatever technique you use and prefer.

    Fast Films, offered by U.S. Screen & Inkjet Technology, is designed to automate the process of creating color separations for screen printing. It is an Abobe Photoshop plug-in and can be used with MAC and Windows OS.

    Other questions to ask:

    • How accurate is the software’s preview function? In other words, when you see an image on screen, how close is that image to what you’ll see on press?
    • How fast is the software?
    • Will it work on a Mac and/or PC? Can it be installed on more than one computer?
    • What type of software copy protection does it use — a dongle, for instance?
    It’s also critical to find out what type of training and support the company offers. While screen printers still have it easy, compared to how difficult it used to be to create seps, the software is still sophisticated and deep — and you’re going to want a helping hand when you get stuck. A manual is helpful, and some packages even come with helpful videos, but find out whether the supplier offers support via e-mail and telephone. There’s nothing like one-on-one communication when you need help with your software.

    Sticking With It In many ways, all separation programs offer the same functionality — the ability to separate artwork. Admittedly, some do the job better than others, but they all can get the job done. The key, then, is how the software gets you to that point. In other words, is the software user-friendly? Is it intuitive? And does it fit well into your work style?

    That said, once you’ve chosen a separation program, you probably should make it the only one your art department uses. You’re in business to print shirts and make money, not to spend endless hours fooling with different separation techniques and experimenting with different programs. Make life simpler for everyone in your shop by choosing a program, then laying out a specific way of using that program. If you want to do R&D, do it off the clock.

    The amount of time you’ll need to spend familiarizing yourself with the actual separation software varies from individual to individual. For instance, when my company first purchased separation software in 1995, it was only a matter of about three days before we were using it to turn out jobs. Of course, much like screen printing itself, you’re never really done learning; there’s always something new and exciting to discover.

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    Screen-shot of Easy Art

    The Four Types of Separations
    No matter what type of artwork you are printing, it must be separated into order to be printed. If you’re doing simple spot color separations, you’ll be making one screen for every color in the design. If you are doing true process color separations, you’ll need four screens. If you are doing simulated process, the number of screens varies with the artwork, so count on at least three screens or more. Index also depends on the artwork but will typically require four screens and up.

    Below is brief description of each type of separation and its pros and cons.

    Spot Color
    Spot color is the simplest type of separation and doesn’t require any special software. Essentially, whatever graphics program (such as Adobe Illustrator or CorelDRAW) you create the artwork in, you use that same program to create the separations. For simple vector artwork (lines), this is the best type. You can combine colors to create additional colors, but this is rarely done. Usually spot color separations are used for designs that have between one and three colors. For printers who are doing NASCAR-type work, which demands lots of bright colors, you may on occasion have someone who is literally doing a 10-color design using spot colors, but this is the exception, not the rule. This is the best technique to use if your artwork is completely vector, no matter how many colors it has in it.

    True Process Color
    True process is when the artwork is separated into four colors: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. By using translucent inks, you create secondary and tertiary colors to get the full gamut of colors in your design. If you decide you want to do true process color separations, you can do them in Photoshop, Easy Art, or Fast Films.

    The biggest advantage to using true process is you need only four screens. So this saves time and labor. The biggest disadvantage to true process is it was originally invented to print on paper and that’s what it works best on. It can and is done on T-shirts, but achieving color consistency from print to print is very difficult. The necessary translucent inks are tricky to work with because they cause color shifts and casts. You might print a job today and tomorrow find you cannot exactly match the colors.

    Another disadvantage is a lack of color vibrancy and brightness. To get a rich red or green in a true process print, most printers use what is called a bump plate or spot color. This is an additional screen that is printed over the red or green area to make the color brighter. If you are going to make an additional screen, you may as well use simulated process. In summary, it’s time consuming, causes a lot of headaches, and you can never be guaranteed great results. For this reason, this technique is not widely used in garment decoration.

    Simulated process is the most widely used technique in the industry today because it offers significant advantages over all other techniques. This method uses individual Pantone colors with halftones to simulate a full-color look. Photo courtesy of U.S. Screen & Inkjet Technology.

    Simulated Process Color
    Simulated process is the most widely used technique in the industry today because it offers significant advantages over all other techniques. This method uses individual Pantone colors with halftones to simulate a full-color look. The biggest advantage of simulated process is its repeatability. You mix a color, put it in the screen, and you will get the same results every time. Simulated process also creates very bright, true color.

    A downside to simulated over true process is the number of screens. It will usually be more than four. The number of screens is dictated by the artwork. Typically, simulated process designs use between five and eight screens. It’s the best choice to use with raster artwork or any design that has a combination of raster and vector artwork.

    You can create simulated process color separations in Photoshop, but there are industry-specific color separation software programs that automate this process making it much quicker. They include Spot Process, Fast Films, and Easy Art.

    Index
    The final type of separation technique is called index. This method requires the separator to essentially eliminate some of the colors in the design. For example if it was a 10 color design, the artist might choose six colors to use. The advantage of index separations is the ability to get very fine detail because instead of using a halftone to create additional colors, it uses a pixel dot. This dot also eliminates the chance of creating moiré.

    The best way to compare one program vs. another is to visit each supplier's Web site to access the downloadable demos. Generally, demos are fully functional applications that will stop working after a certain amount of time or usages - two weeks or 20 separation jobs, for instance.

    The down side of index process is you lose the ability to create shading and highlights. For example, if you were printing a green leaf that was half in sun and half in shadow, you might need three shades of green: a dark green, a medium green, and a highlight green. Otherwise you would have to choose which green you wanted to use and the leaf would be a solid green with no distinction. Another disadvantage is index process typically requires a big press to print all the required colors and lots of screens. Programs that will produce index separations include Fast Films, Photoshop, and Easy Art.

    Resources:

      Easy Art from Polyone/Wilflex
      Kennesaw , GA 30152
      770-590-3500 or 800-326-0226
      E-mail: nancy.brown@polyone.com
      Web: www.polyone.com

      Fast Films from U.S. Screen Print and Inkjet Technology
      1901 E. 5th Street
      Tempe, AZ USA 85281
      480-929-0640 or 800-624-6532
      E-mail: info@usscreen.com
      Web: www.screenprinters.net

      Spot Process from Great Dane Graphics
      P.O. Box 1661
      Maple Grove, MN 55311
      (800) 829-0836
      E-mail: dane@greatdanegraphics.com
      Web: www.greatdanegraphics.com

      This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, 4th Quarter 2007 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2007 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (www.sgia.org). All Rights Reserved.

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