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Why Colors Do Not Match

On a recent identity project for a client, I had to send two related print pieces to two different printers, one online and the other on ground. When both orders were delivered, the colors did not match, although the call-outs and specifications for both were exactly the same. What happened? The on-ground printer used custom color controls, and the other did not. Also the paper stock was not the same.

Designers who are experienced with print projects will understand these discrepancies and will have a conversation with the client as to what to expect in a case such at this. Clients can get bent out of shape about color inconsistencies, but, by sharing some knowledge, the designer can easily respond these concerns.

Printing relies on two separate color systems.

When designers and artists work with color, they deal with two separate but related systems. There is the additive color system, which is direct light that originates from the source that produces it. Computers, televisions and tablets utilize the additive system. Its foundational, or primary, colors are red, green and blue. This system is additive because when the 3 primaries are blended together, white light is produced.

Anything that is printed is subject to the subtractive color system. Every object and surface is perceived because of the physics of subtractive color. This system governs pigments, which include everything from the melanin in our skin to Pantone® colors. Pigment reflects and absorbs light. How a given pigment reflects and absorbs light creates the colors we perceive. The foundational hues in the subtractive system are red, blue and yellow. More accurately, they are magenta (red), cyan (blue) and yellow.


In printing, accurate color relies on the quality of direct light, the quality of the pigments (inks) and the reflectance and texture of the paper stock used. Both the inks and the paper contain pigment and are under the subtractive color system. The paper itself is considered a reflective light source.

If a surface appears yellow, it is because the blue range in the additive system is being absorbed or filtered out by the pigment. This leaves the red and green primaries to reflect from the surface. The blend of red and green light (additive color) is yellow.


If the color we see is blue, that means that the red and green ranges in light are being absorbed by the pigment, allowing only the blue to escape.


Good lighting is needed for accurate color perception.

Additive color – direct light – is necessary for subtractive color – reflected light – to exist. Color is essentially all about light, whether it is from an original source or reflected from a surface. Our ability to see anything is at the core a color issue.

The problem we most often have with color matching is in how these two systems interact. Since the subtractive system relies on the additive, the quality of the direct light is important for accurate color perception. We consider daylight at noon to be the best for color accuracy. Morning light tends to be cooler, and afternoon light is warmer. Light should be balanced — neither too warm nor too cool. There should be enough of it to see well, but not too much so that color will appear washed out.

Incandescent light bulbs create a warm light, which fluorescents create cool light. Balanced light (what we commonly call daylight) was previously created through high wattage or combining warm and cool lights. Take a look at a “daylight” incandescent bulb and you’ll see a soft blue tint to the coating. The blue pigment in the coating is a filter for the yellow light inside.

When using incandescent bulbs, the higher the wattage, the cooler the light. A 100W incandescent will be better for color viewing than a 60W, which creates an orange quality. LED lights are naturally balanced, and better than CFLs for seeing color. If you wan to perceive pigment colors choose LED lighting.

Color viewed on a digital display will appear differently when printed.

What I see on my display will look different from what you see on your display. Our perceptions of images onscreen are influenced by the calibration of our displays including the white point setting, the ambient light in the room, and what color profiles are being used.  The role of the designer is to adjust calibration and light levels so that his display is creates color as accurately as possible, and to calibrate a desktop printer to create as close a match as possible with its inks.

>Still, with all our technology, we cannot make pigment (subtractive) color exactly match its additive counterpart. Pigments are not perfect in reflecting and absorbing light. The best we can do is to obtain as close a match as possible.

*One reason why online printers such as and are so inexpensive compared to brick-and-mortar printers is that they put many jobs into the same print run and print on inexpensive house stock. There is no option for color adjustment for each print order, since orders are grouped or ganged together in a single press run.

Alvalyn Lundgren

Alvalyn Lundgren is the founder and principal of Alvalyn Creative, an independent consultancy providing brand strategy design and bespoke illustration for more than 30 years. She is the creator of Freelance Road Trip — a business school and podcast for creative freelancers. She teaches design and design practice on the college level with design schools and programs.