Matching Vinyl Colors Means Understanding Light
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Matching Vinyl Colors Means Understanding Light

Understanding the principles of light helps ensure properly matched colors that accurately communicate your client's message.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Are you color blind? Or are you fluent in the language of color? If you are like most sign makers, you are probably somewhere in between.

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  • Matching vinyl colors may seem straightforward, but many factors affect the way colors appear to the naked eye. Creating effective, head-turning vinyl graphics requires the sign maker to become somewhat of a color-matching specialist.

    Understanding how light works is the first step to properly matching vinyl colors, followed by understanding how the lighting conditions and other factors impact the perception of color. Armed with this knowledge, the sign maker can focus on communicating a clear message with colors. Finally, properly matching vinyl colors is paramount to a successful graphic.

    "There's science involved," said Bob Silverstein, proprietor of FASTSIGNS of Schamburg in Illinois. "There's also physiology involved in color matching."

    The Principles of Light
    Light is a type of energy called electromagnetic radiation, which travels through space in photons. This energy creates and electromagnetic field. Color is produced by the rate of fluctuation or frequency of this field.

    A large collection of wavelengths makes up the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light is only a small part of the spectrum. Invisible frequencies include X-rays, ultraviolet, infrared, radar and radio waves. The light we can see is made up of every color in the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. A common acronym for this is "Roy G. Biv."

    The color that we actually see is directly connected to the light source. For example, the color of a banana is yellow because it reflects the yellow ray in the white light. Where there is more yellow in the light source, more yellow is reflected and visible to the eye. In other words, the colors you see depend on the amount and color of light being reflected or absorbed by the vinyl.

    Investigating Lighting Conditions
    Daylight is made up evenly of all the colors in the spectrum. But other types of light, with varying temperatures, throw different colors. Incandescent light, for instance, throws reds, oranges and yellows while fluorescent light throws greens. A good example is trying to tell the difference between black and navy blue in different lighting conditions. Blue appears more blue in daylight than incandescent light because the reds alter the perception of the color. Backlighting and can also dramatically change the way color is perceived.

    This discrepancy is called metamerism and illustrates the critical need to understand what lighting conditions in which your clients' signage will be displayed. So under what lighting condition do you properly match vinyl colors?

    "We match under northern light at about 11 a.m. if it's a normal day if there's not a blizzard or rain in decent weather," said Margaret Walch, director of the Color Association of the United States. "The skies have to be clear."

    When skies aren't clear, many sign makers use daylight-corrected lamps.

    "Another trick in lighting is if your signage is going to be seen in incandescent light then that's the way you want to match," said Walch. "But the fact of the matter is that natural lighting will match in anything else, so why not use it?"

    Additional Factors that Affect Color
    Light is the primary concern when matching colors, but there are other factors that impact the way color is perceived, such as the vinyl's finish. Glossier vinyls appear darker where matte, or non-glossy, finishes appear lighter.

    The thickness of the vinyl can also make a significant impact on the way color is perceived. Translucent and opaque films, for example, produce much different results in terms of color. Translucent films are backlit the light source shines through the film. Different thicknesses affect how much light shines through the film and that impacts how the color is perceived.

    That, said Silverstein, makes color matching a little trickier.

    "You can run into major color problems because in almost all certainty the color at night is going to be different than the color during the day," he said. "In one case you are dealing with light reflecting off the vinyl and in the other you are dealing with light passing through it."

    Opaque films, on the other hand, always reflect color from the surface of the film and thickness is not a factor.

    "These are small differences that, under most circumstances, won't matter to the customer," said Silverstein. "But you have some customers who require an absolute match to something and you can have these very minor affects turn into major headaches."

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    The Language of Color
    Once you understand lighting you can begin matching colors based on their communicative value. Most people are at least somewhat familiar with color symbolism -- brown is earthy, green is energetic, yellow is futuristic, red is dynamic, etc. -- but Walch said what they are not always so clear about it is the primary emotion they want to communicate.

    "You have to pick out one thing," she said. "You can't be everything." Take the basic values of color, pretty in pink, dynamism of red and the signal capacity of orange. They all have their thing, so why not use them instead of attempting to draw fine lines? That's where people get into trouble drawing fine lines."

    Are there certain colors that just shouldn't go together? Walch said no. A good designer can make it work. There are certain colors at certain times at certain places that will be perceived as ugly, she said, and there are certain colors at certain times at certain places that will have tremendous appeal.

    How to Match Colors
    The trouble with vinyls is that there is a limited color palate. That becomes an issue in color matching with regard to meeting the expectation or standard the customer has. Another challenge is a lack of a universal color standard among vinyl manufacturers. Avery and 3M might produce slightly different shades of red, for example.

    "Different manufacturers have a different idea what red is," said Silverstein. "There's probably universal agreement on black and white and nothing else."

    Silverstein bases his color matching on a Pantone Matching System (PMS) fan deck. Then, under a daylight-corrected lamp he takes the roll of vinyl and holds it up to the sample the customer provides. For printing, Silverstein uses the Gerber Scientific Products' Edge Print & Cut System, a digital solution featuring the Gerber Edge printer and Omega software.

    Using Technology to Match Colors
    So does Chuck Peterson, of Chuck Peterson Graphics, a sign making shop in Cardiff by the Sea, Calif. He said his most common request is matching Pantone colors. And for that he employs the latest technology to ensure the most accurate results possible.

    "A designer might pick out a paint color and want me to match it to vinyl," said Peterson. "It's not always easy to do. With the Gerber Edge printer I can come really close."

    Gerber's software duplicates over 900 Pantone-approved colors. But there are a lot more than 900 Pantone colors.

    "We use a four-color process system and the Gerber software has that built in," said Peterson. "I used to look in a Pantone book and find the Pantone color and then find the CMYK equivalent and print it and it comes out pretty close. But the Gerber Omega software has a Pantone color chart built in and you can click on that and it automatically sets the CMYK colors. I just finished a job using that and it came out exactly right."

    Preserving the Color
    There's little use in painstakingly matching colors if the sun is going to fade them out in the short-term.

    "There's a couple of ways to laminate over vinyl graphics," said Peterson. "For example, if it's going on the side of a truck and is subject to a lot of abrasion and abuse, the best way is to coat it with a clear UV-resistant vinyl. But that's another step. You are adding another vinyl and we don't want to do that unless it's really needed."

    But Silverstein and Peterson agreed that vinyls printed with the Gerber Edge will last years longer than with ink jet printers.

    From understanding light and lighting conditions to understanding the language of color, sign makers can increase customer satisfaction and profits by investing more time and money into matching colors.

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