Control Your Colors

September 1, 2001
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New color management technology is making it easier than ever for ceramic decorators to predictably and accurately manage color on a range of output devices.

A colorimeter works in conjunction with the color management software and measures the colors on screen.
Anyone who has done reproduction work for ceramic decoration knows that the final color results can be a little unpredictable. With so many variables in the production and print process, there is little wonder that getting the right color has become an art rather than a science.

In recent years, however, technologies for both inks and kilns have advanced considerably, to the extent that many of the “variables” can now be controlled better than ever. Combine these advances with today’s high-tech computer hardware and software, and a reliable form of color management can now be introduced to the workflow.

The image on the left shows what would be achieved with standard separations and without any color management, while the image on the right depicts what would be achieved with color-managed separations.

Hardware and Software

On the computer, the key to good color management is knowing how each of your input, display and output devices handle color. The industry-accepted standard for determining these factors is an International Color Consortium (ICC) profile—a conversion table that mathematically details how a particular device moves color data into or out of a theoretically perfect color space (known as Lab CIE color). In addition to having the ICC profiles, your computer needs to know what to do with them—on an Apple Macintosh, this function is handled through ColorSync, while on a PC with Windows™ 98 or higher, it is handled through Windows ICM. (While other software is available, these two programs work with the operating systems to ensure a seamless transfer of information.)

Manufacturers will often supply ICC profiles with the various devices when you buy them, but be aware that these profiles are very generic and at best will indicate the average performance of a particular device. As your device gets older, its color characteristics will change, so you will need to invest in some good color management software that enables you to re-profile your devices on a regular basis. Color management software comes in many varieties—in general, the more expensive systems tend to provide more accurate results.

Profiling your scanner(s) is straightforward. With most color management software, you scan in a target, often called an IT8 target, which has a series of colored areas. The scan is then compared to a reference file, which indicates how each of the colors should be composed. By comparing the actual color values for each square against the expected color values, the color management software is able to build a profile for your scanner.

Most “serious” color management software will also come with a color measuring device to help you profile and calibrate your monitor. The device, usually called a colorimeter, works in conjunction with the color management software and measures the colors on screen, so when the software displays 80% red, the colorimeter might report back that it is only seeing 70% red. Again, all of this information is put into an ICC profile.

Creating output profiles is a little more complicated, but essentially follows the same principles. A series of known color patches are output to your chosen media (generally, the greater number of colors output, the more accurate the profile will be), and the output colors are measured using a spectrophotometer. As before, the actual color values are compared to the expected color values, and an ICC profile is generated. For reading colors from ceramic media, special spectrophotometers, such as the Minolta CM2002, are often used to help ensure accuracy.

On-Screen Proofing

Now that we have all of our devices profiled, what can we do with them? Most design software, including the commonly used Quark, Adobe and Macromedia applications, is ICC profile-aware. However, profiles need to be attached or “tagged” onto images to indicate their source and destination so that the correct color transformations can take place. To do this, you will need to use either Adobe Photoshop (version 6 or higher has advanced color management capabilities) or the specific profile attaching/editing software that comes with your color management package. Once an image is “tagged” with a profile(s), the color transformation engine (i.e., ColorSync or ICM) can be used to alter the appearance of the image to reflect all of the color devices it has been or will be moved through (this is done automatically within your ICC profile-aware design software).

The immediate benefit of these extra steps is that you will now be able to “soft proof” an image on your monitor; in other words, you can simulate on screen how it will finally look when printed or output. This enables you to make on-screen adjustments to the colors and tones, and immediately see the results without having to go through the costly and time consuming process of outputting the image. Similarly, you can output a file to a proof printer (such as an inkjet or a color copier) that can simulate output onto ceramic media, changing the available color space to match that destination.

A new color management system developed specifically for use with ceramic colors was recently used to help create this series of metal enamel panels in a subway leading to the Tower of London.

A New System for Ceramics

All of this sounds good but requires a lot of time and effort to set up and maintain. In an effort to make things even easier for ceramic decorators, UK-based color management and ceramic decoration specialists teamed up with a Germany-based producer of ceramic inks and screens to develop a complete solution for the ceramic decoration industry.* The result is a new color management system that provides the ability to produce highly optimized automated four- and seven-color separations, based on a series of new decorating inks.

The system takes into account the peculiarities of ceramic colors and produces results that are much truer to the originals, and that can be produced without much of the “hand-tweaking” previously required to get good results. An additional benefit of this system is that much of the output profiling has already been done for you—so the system is easier to set up for first-time use (though set procedures must still be followed to control all the variables). Users of the new system have commented that they now produce one proof to show acceptable reproduction where they had previously required three or four, thereby saving time, materials and money.

An optimized version of the new system was recently used to help create a series of metal enamel panels in a subway leading to the Tower of London. The total 130-ft-wide x 5-ft-high image was screen printed onto steel, using ceramic inks, and fired to produce a durable and weatherproof finish. The images were of a series of specially commissioned expressionist paintings by artist Stephen B Whatley, and achieving good color matching was vital. The standard production process produced mediocre results, but by using color management techniques, the production company was able to produce results that greatly surpassed the artist’s initial expectations.

Cost vs. Benefits

Color management can be implemented in stages, depending on your workflow and the processes used. While monitor calibration and profiling hardware/software can be purchased for as little as $400, serious users will need to spend a bit more to obtain software that can profile all of your devices. Such software can range from around $1000 for entry-level versions to $4500 for “professional” versions. You will also need a quality spectrophotometer, and you should budget for several days of consultancy and training from a color management advisor.

While an investment in a quality color management system isn’t cheap, it can be justified through savings in time and materials. When properly and accurately implemented, color management delivers predictable and accurate color on a range of output devices, and allows retouching and color correction to be done before any outputs or test firings need to be made, thereby reducing the amount of trial and error involved and saving the decorator both time and materials in the process.

For More Information

For more information about color management, contact Typemaker Ltd., Westbourne Manor, 17 Westbourne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 3TR, UK; (44) 121-604-1234; fax (44) 121-604-4567; or visit http://www.typemaker.co.uk.

*CerDeChrom, a result of joint developments between UK-based TypeMaker Ltd. and Germany-based dmc2 (formerly Cerdec).

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