CMYK vs Pantone™

Ordering commercial print can be a lot like deciding how to decorate your living room. Finding the right balance of colour and texture to achieve the look you want can be a daunting task.

The biggest choice you will need to make when it comes to ink is whether to use spot colours (Pantone Matching System®) or CMYK process printing. Understanding the difference between the two “colour systems” and when you should use each is the key to making it an easy choice.

Pantone™ inks

The PMS system, uses pre-determined, published colour formulas to create a large number of ink colours. PMS stands for Pantone Matching System®, and is a standardized colour reproduction system. Similar to the paint swatch guides you find at your favourite paint store, the pantone colour chart contains thousands of colour swatches created from a palette of basic colours. Creating a Pantone spot colour is similar to mixing paint such as blue and yellow to get green, but with much more precision. Each colour has a ‘PMS’ number assigned to it. These numbers are used to identify the exact colour needed. The specified ink is then prepared using the correct mixture of base colours, either purchased pre-mixed from an ink company or mixed on-site at the printing company. Using PMS inks is called spot colour printing.


When preparing an image for printing in CMYK, the electronic file is separated into four primary colours: ‘C’ cyan, ‘M’ magenta, ‘Y’ yellow and ‘K’ black. The image is recreated using screen tints made up of small dots that are applied at different angles to the four process colours. The separated colour images are then transferred to four different printing plates on the press. The colours are then printed one after the other to recreate the original image. The CMYK colours are manufactured colours and are not mixed by the end user. This method can be referred to as 4 colour, full-colour or standard process.

Which one is better?

It’s like comparing apples and oranges. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

PMS colours don’t have any ‘dots’. They are solid sheets of colour when used at full strength so there are no registration problems. This means smaller type can be reproduced more easily in PMS colours than in CMYK. The main disadvantage is that you can’t print full colour images – like photographs – in PMS colours.

CMYK is perfect for reproducing full colour, and is often more cost effective than the individual mixing of specific colours. It’s working with the technology, rather than against it. The main disadvantage is that not every PMS can be matched by mixing CMYK colours. Rich colours become duller, and on some papers, at some screen levels, the screen that is used to optically mix the colours is obvious.

At Jason’s Print Solutions, we’re always happy to advise you on which printing process and finish will be the best for your job.