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Understanding Spot Color

📄 Contents

  1. Setting Up an Image for Spot Color
  2. Defining a Spot Color
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Have you ever had this happen to you? A friend said that her boss really liked the ad she created but had one little suggestion: Could she add a burst to it? In this article, master Photoshop teacher Gary Bouton guides her and you through preparing an image for and then defining a spot color.
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Have you ever had this happen to you? A friend of mine said that her boss really liked the ad she created but had one little suggestion: Could she add a burst to it? Boy, oh, boy. How was she to add that? In this article, master Photoshop teacher Gary Bouton guides her and you through setting up an image for and then defining a spot color.

Printing presses use a combination of inks—cyan, magenta, yellow, and finally black (to add "ooomph" to the printed piece). A CMYK reproduction of an RGB image sometimes appears duller than its onscreen counterpart, but this is because monitor colors are transmitting colors—the colors are made of light that goes out and hits the color sensors in your eye. In comparison, printed material is reflected color. A light source hits the paper, the image or text is reflected into your eyes, and something is lost in the process—namely brilliant colors. If you're taking the image to a printing company, you may find that the pressmen know how to goose up dull areas on a printing plate and make your image look closer to the onscreen version.

The example showcased in this article is one of those inane advertisements they hang on the kid's seat of a shopping cart. The image, Cosmic Cleaner.tif looks pretty much the same in CMYK color mode as it did in its original RGB color mode. Figure 1 shows the image to which we will add a spot color.

Figure 1 This image needs a burst that tells the viewing audience that it is new. You have about 320 pixels in width to create the burst.

Not to get ahead of ourselves here, but the image needs a "NEW!" burst in the upper-left corner. And we cannot simply add the burst to the artwork because the CEO of the product, Mr. Cosmic, wants an eye-catching, obnoxious, nearly fluorescent burst. Now, even Adobe's help line tells you that it is usually best to create your spot art in a vector drawing program, so in Figure 2, you can see that we've created a burst that, by the rulers, tells us that it's about 320 pixels in width.

There will be a problem you will learn to hurdle over in the examples to follow because although the burst can be hot pink, the "NEW!" lettering must be white. We can't simply leave a hole in the burst because the background image will show through and make the burst less than legible. So, when you create your EPS (Illustrator) file for export to Photoshop, make the lettering white, not empty (transparent).


For those of you who do not own Illustrator, XARA, or another vector program that can export to AI or EPS format, we created the logo for you. It's called, and it was saved from Illustrator in the 7.0 version (to prevent incompatibility). You need to save it and CosmicCleaner.tif to your hard disk.

The first step is to place the carefully measured Illustrator file onto a layer in the CosmicCleaner.tif image. Fortunately for all of us, Photoshop reads the header of the Illustrator file and automatically places the art to the size designated in Illustrator.

Figure 2 Create a "NEW!" burst in which white text lies over the black burst. Now, you're ready to import it to Photoshop.

Setting Up an Image for Spot Color

Let's get this spot show on the road and bring in the burst, create a channel for the text (um, you need a channel to hold the spot color design), and fool around with the channels slightly so you can prepare an image knockout.

  1. Open the CosmicCleaner.tif image. A 50% viewing resolution is good.

  2. Choose File, Place and then choose the file.

  3. The art will plop itself anywhere it pleases in the image so, click and hold in the center of the bounding box and then drag the art to its appropriate place above the image, as shown in Figure 3.

  4. Either press Enter, or double-click inside the EPS import bounding box to make this vector image to be one composed of pixels (a bitmap image area). By default, Photoshop always anti-aliases vector imports, so the burst is crisp, yet smooth in appearance.

    Figure 3 When you place an EPS image, it imports at the size at which you created it. This is why placing it in this example works out so dandy.

  5. Now that the layer has the artwork, Ctrl(@Cmd)+click on the Layer title to load the silhouette of the burst as a marquee selection. This is move #1 in Figure 4.

  6. Click the Channels palette tab. Alt(Opt)+click the Create a new channel icon (see Figure 4, callout #2). Then, in the New Channel dialog box, check the Color Indicates: Selected Areas (#3). This is the mask you will use for the knockout in the image. Click OK to exit the dialog box.

    Figure 4 Load the opaque areas on the layer; then use the Channel palette's features to create a new white layer, into which you will render the burst's shape.

  7. Click the Alpha 1 channel title so that it's the current editing channel, and then fill the burst with black. Save this work as Cosmic cleaner.psd to a convenient and friendly place on your hard disk. (You can download our version of the file if you want.)

  8. Click on the RGB channel and press Ctrl(@Cmd)+C to copy the burst and its lettering to the Clipboard. Do not deselect the selection marquee, or you will be sorry.

  9. On the Channels palette, create a new channel and then choose Edit, Paste Into from the main menu—see Figure 5. Congratulations! You now have the outline of the burst perfectly in line with the text burst in this new channel. Press Ctrl(@Cmd)+D to deselect the marquee.

    Figure 5 Paste the Clipboard copy of the burst into the selection marquee that exists right now in the Alpha 2 channel.

  10. Press Ctrl(@Cmd)+S; keep the file open. You can and should delete the layer from the image at any time now. You do not need it any longer. Click on the RGB channel; you'll be working with this channel in the following section.

You now have all the working materials tucked away in this file to create a four-color reproduction for shopping carts everywhere, with a nice fat spot color burst in it.

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