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Pantone Beginner's Guide

Updated on January 21, 2015

Learn more about Pantone, and how this color standard will help you turn your photography and graphic design work into accurate print pieces that you can proudly display in confidence!

Here, we'll review what Pantone is, explore how it's used in home and at the office, and offer suggestions for RGB and CMYK Pantone swatch sets for the line of work you're in.

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About Pantone Colors

Understanding the universal standard for color

The Pantone company, headquartered in Carlstadt, NJ, has been setting the standard for universal color systems and calibrations for over 40 years with their Pantone Matching System (PMS). It ensures uniform color accuracy from the computer monitor to the final print-out, with exact results.

Supported by all graphic design software packages including but not limited to Photoshop, Illustrator and QuarkXPress, Pantone has become the undeniable necessity in the print industry, especially since it is also an international standard.

By classifying and assigning numbers to hundreds of colors and shades, Pantone was able to monopolize the color matching and calibration niche with a multitude of color classifications that run the full spectrum.

Pantone Chips and Swatch Books

Two Tangible Pantone Color Products

Since Pantone colors are needed to verify color in person, tangible products are available that allow you to compare a Pantone color to a real life object so that you can determine the closest match. They come in two forms: Pantone chips and swatch books.

  • Pantone Chips come in a small binder with several squares of each Pantone color that are perforated and removable. You can then paper-clip a swatch to your print material and send it to the printing company as a reference.
  • Pantone Swatch Books are wide fan-out booklets displaying the full range of Pantone colors. They allow you to fan out the swatch pages, hold them up to a screen or printout, and compare colors by eye. These are typically the more popular products, since swatch chips tend to get lost and used up, prompting you to buy a replacement page or book.

An Annual Cost

Professional printing companies typically re-purchase swatch booklets every year (Pantone updates their swatches annually) for accurate and up-to-date color representation. They do this because fluorescent lights and the sun can alter swatch colors.

Don't worry though: unless your swatches have extreme and constant exposure to light, you will never notice this. Since you probably don't want to buy a new book for yourself every year, It's always recommended that you keep your swatch book in a closed drawer when not used.

Pantone Color Basics - Color 101: A Review of the Different Types

Pantone books fan out for on-the-spot color comparison
Pantone books fan out for on-the-spot color comparison

Pantone has released many different swatch sets through the years, along with many additional features such as RGB & CMYK comparisons, metallics, pastels, and even HTML-value colors. Here's a basic breakdown of different color categories:

  • CMYK: The standard for printing, which blends the ink colors of Cyan (C), Magenta (M), Yellow(Y) and Black (K or Key). This is also known as "process," "full process," or "4-color process" in the print industry. CMYK printing uses "halftones," or lighter shades of the four colors, to represent lighter versions of a color.
  • RGB: The color template primarily used for computer monitors by web designers, composed of the three colors Red, Green and Blue. These are also known as the "Primary Colors." RGB tends to look more vibrant and versatile than CMYK, although it involves a different printing process and is not commonly used for that purpose. In printing, RGB is performed with each color on its own separate "plate." When each plate lays over the top of each other, the final image appears. For TVs and computer monitors, each pixel represents one of the RGB colors.
  • Spot Colors: This term usually refers to CMYK, but is mainly used in the industry to define a non-standard color, such as a metallic or fluorescent. Most printing companies charge extra for the usage of spot colors.

Recommended Reading

Color - Messages & Meanings: A PANTONE Color Resource
Color - Messages & Meanings: A PANTONE Color Resource
Based on research and filled with hundreds of color combinations and illustrations, this book presents color expert, Leatrice Eiseman's insights on color and emotion, and addresses how best to integrate these qualities into your work, insuring your intended message is communicated. These essential guidelines and illustrations can be applied to so many of your projects... branding, packaging, signage, point-of-purchase, displays, advertising, logos, websites and more.

Choosing the Right Pantone Swatch Book - What Type of Print Work Will You Be Doing?

Now that you've gone through the basics, it's time to reflect on the print work you'll be doing. Here are several suggestions for specific Pantone color guides and chips for specific print jobs. These recommendations assume that you will be printing on either coated or uncoated paper, or perhaps a little of both:

  • Brochures, quality magazines, pamphlets, posters and or book covers: You'll most likely get a lot of use out of the "Pantone Coated" booklet.
  • Newspapers, circulars, business cards, invitations, letterheads, business letters and or book pages: You'll probably want to go with the "Pantone Uncoated" booklet.

Pantone also offers a "Color Bridge" booklet, which allows you to see how standard Pantone colors will look when converted to CMYK format. It will also allow you to see the computer monitor color reproductions for Pantone colors, too.

Buy The Plus Series Pantone Color Guide - The Best Pantone Starter Guide for Beginners

Looking to start out in the world of Pantone color calibration? The Plus Series is an all-new and updated guide set featuring all original 1,341 colors plus 224 new colors in two fan-style swatch booklets.

Pantone Plus Series Formula Guides Solid Coated & Uncoated (Two-Guide Set)
Pantone Plus Series Formula Guides Solid Coated & Uncoated (Two-Guide Set)
* 1,341 solid Pantone Colors, including 14 base colors * Chromatically arranged fan format * Text-weight, FSC-compliant paper Also includes Pantone Color Manager Software and ink mixing formulas in parts.

Paper and Its Impact on Pantone Colors

How Paper Drastically Changes Color Perception

When choosing the proper Pantone swatch book for your purposes, you'll have to think about the type of paper you'll be printing on. Paper is also called "stock" and is measured by its thickness in "pounds" or "#."

Pantone offers separate books based upon different paper types, because a single color will look differently on multiple textures of paper. The basic types are outlined below:

  • Coated: Coated paper is treated with a compound to make it appear smooth to the touch, glossy, or shiny. Ink painted on the surface of coated paper generally looks rich and vibrant. It usually has ultraviolet protection to help prevent fading. Most corporate brochures, folders and high-quality mail-outs use coated paper.
  • Uncoated: Uncoated paper does not have any kind of coating, and tends to absorb ink more than coated paper. Newspapers and circulars use uncoated paper. Uncoated paper does not have a shine or gloss on its surface when read under a ceiling light.
  • Matte: Matte paper is mostly favored for artistic lithograph printing or photographic prints, as it has a flat, smooth feel with a great ability to display accurate color representations. It has a very slick and extremely smooth surface, and is also an very fragile paper type that tears easily.

Recommended Reading

Choosing and Using Paper for Great Graphic Design
Choosing and Using Paper for Great Graphic Design
In the world of print, paper choice influences every design project, and designers often complain about the lack of genuinely good reference material for projects requiring a strong design input. This book fills the gap as it showcases the very best designs created through the ingenious and groundbreaking use of paper and printing techniques. All budgets are covered and international work from both well-known and unsung design companies is featured.
Pantone metallic
Pantone metallic

Pantone Specialty Inks

Other Ink Sets that are Worth Recognition

Beyond the standard ink types, Pantone also offers swatch sets based on specialty inks that are set apart from the standard spectrum of colors, due to their unique applications. They include:

Pantone Metallic Swatches: Metallic ink represents shades of silver, gold, bronze and other colors. Although they appear to be flat-shaded on a computer screen, they wind up printing with a shimmering effect, due to the fact that special metal filings are mixed into the ink itself.

Pantone Pastel Swatches: Pastel colors are soft and "powdery" in appearance and typically associated with the Spring season. Pantone has released a separate booklet just for pastels.

Pantone Tints: An interesting and new inclusion, which shows you the tint variations of basic spot colors from 10% to 80% lighter. They indicate what a color looks like when tinted, so that no guesswork is needed on behalf of the designer.

Pantone Speciality Color Guides: Metallic, Pastel and Tints

Pantone's hand-held color calibrators allow for spot-on print accuracy
Pantone's hand-held color calibrators allow for spot-on print accuracy

Color Calibration for Pantone

How to Properly Calibrate Printers for Pantone

So far, we've gone through the different kinds of colors (RGB, CMYK and Spot) as well as the different kinds of paper (Uncoated, Coated and Matte). However, there's a missing link: the actual calibration of the printer you're using.

As a printer goes through its normal operation, its print heads become dirty, and in some cases (especially with high-end, expensive Giclée printers), the link lines need to be bled of air bubbles. All of these things lead to inaccurate color representations. To remedy, clean your print heads regularly: a simple wipe of the copper contact on an inkjet will suffice.

Before every print job, be sure to run your printer's calibration test. This will allow it to print a spectrum and various shades of grayscale in order to verify that colors and tones are accurate, and lines are matched up properly.

In field work, print production specialists use hand-held calibration devices to ensure that their Pantone colors are matching up properly. These devices can pointed and held down on a real-life object (or even directly against a computer monitor), and information about that color "feeds" into the computer after a few seconds, identifying color accuracy.

Pantone Calibrators - The Best Way to Ensure Color Accuracy

These handy devices allow you to scan real-life objects and grab a specific color. The device then gives you the most accurate Pantone value for that color, right on your computer monitor and ready to go for Photoshop or Illustrator. In addition, you can translate that color into RGB, CMYK, an HTML value, or L*A*B; making it an ideal solution for interior decorators, graphic or web designers, or anyone that is looking to reproduce certain colors with the highest level of accuracy.

The Spyder 3 Express is an revolutionary simple monitor color correction tool that automatically adjusts the color of your monitor so what you're seeing is more true. It is designed for Photo Enthusiasts, Advanced Amateurs, Passionate Photographers and DSLR users of all kinds.

A Review of the Pantone Essentials Package

It's the most comprehensive Pantone color set available, and it comes in a neat carrying case: the Pantone Essentials package gives you "a little of everything" -- available in a 6 or 8 color guide set, it's everything you need to calibrate for RGB and CMYK output, as well as the accurate representation of web colors.

The Pantone "Essentials" Series

Pantone Plus Series GPG001 Essentials, Six-Guide Set
Pantone Plus Series GPG001 Essentials, Six-Guide Set
All Popular Pantone Sets in One Package: Includes six indispensable color guides that every print and graphic design professional should have to ensure quality results. "Formula Guides" provide the complete Plus Series Solid Color range. "Color Bridge" guides can be used to select and specify solid Pantone Colors, to determine CMYK reproduction, or to create optimal display of Pantone Colors on monitors and Web pages.


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