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Create Vibrant Illustrations Using Special Inks

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Offset printing is composed of four spot colors: Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (black) commonly referred to as CMYK. Some colors are impossible to reproduce with CMYK alone, such as metallics and fluorescents, other colors such as vivid oranges and greens are problematic.

Nowadays many commercial printers have five or six color presses, so it’s not uncommon for designers to integrate one, or even two extra spot colors. It’s also important that a clients’ brand color remains consistent, so spot colors are often used because their inks adhere to exact formulas, giving accurate results every time.


Take a look at your local newsstand and you’ll see many magazines that have been printed with additional inks or special print finishes. Adding spot colors to an InDesign or Illustrator document is a relatively simple task – but this tutorial guides you through the process of intergrating two fluorescent inks as well as a UV gloss varnish.

Step 1

Bear in mind the process you’ll be using doesn’t lend itself to every image type. The stock image of the girl is an ideal choice because it’s already very vibrant. Grab a PANTONE swatch book to pick your extra spot colors – don’t just rely on their on-screen representations. The additional inks and varnish will be used on selective areas to really make the illustration pop.

Another very effective technique is to get your printer to apply an overall matt, or silk lamination, then print the UV gloss varnish – this combination creates a striking effect.

Step 2

It’s vital to talk to your printer before commencing work – he’ll advise you what’s possible, as well as the cost implications. In this case the two fluorescent Touch Plates will be printed first, then the CMYK inks and varnish overprinted – although CMYK inks are slightly transparent, for this to work properly, you’ll need to knock-out areas to allow the pure fluorescents to show through. In other areas, such as the model’s tights, glasses, wristbands and jewellery, we’ll allow the CMYK inks to overprint.

Step 3

Download then open the model image and convert to CMYK. Photoshop has many tools to help you isolate the figure from the background – but as this image has a plain, solid background the quickest method is to make a density mask.

First, select the Eyedropper Tool (I) and sample the yellow background. Now go Select > Color Range, in the next window set the Fuzziness slider to 150 and the Selection Preview to Matt Black to get a clearer view and click OK.

Step 4

Switch to your channels palette and click on the Create new channel icon, then hit Shift + Command+ I to Inverse the selection. Ensure your foreground color set to black, then hit Delete to fill the active selection with white. Now select a small, hard-edged white brush and paint out any remaining black areas within the figure.

Step 5

The Color Range selection has done a great job, but the hair still needs some work. Cycle through the CMYK channels and you’ll see the Magenta holds a better contrast. Make a duplicate of the Magenta channel by dragging its thumbnail onto the Create new channel icon, then hit Command + L to access the Levels dialogue box. Now increase the contrast by setting the blackpoint to 102, the midpoint to 0.75 and the whitepoint to 242.

Step 6

Use the Lasso Tool (L) to draw a rough marquee around the model’s head, then hit Command + I to Invert the selection and Copy to the clipboard.

Step 7

Target your “Alpha 1” channel and with the selection still active Paste the information from the modified Magenta channel and deselect. Now use a white brush and paint out any remaining black areas as you did in Step 4. You should now have a clean white mask of the model. These masking techniques work fine on images with plain backgrounds, but if you need to mask images (especially hair) on complex backgrounds, , then it’s worth checking out the FluidMask Photoshop plug-in.

Step 8

Make a selection from the channel by Command-clicking its thumbnail, then target the top CMYK composite channel. Now switch to the layers palette and hit Command + J to float the selection as a new layer and deselect. Now disable the visibility of the background layer and you’ll notice that the model has retained some yellow color casts from the background – fix this by entering Quickmask Mode and use a medium, soft-edged brush to paint over the affected areas.

Step 9

Exit Quickmask Mode by clicking on the icon again, then hit Command + U to access Hue/Saturation. Now select Yellows under the Edit drop-down menu and drop the Saturation down to -87. When you’re done click OK and save to a convenient location – you won’t be needing this file again until Step 18.

Step 10

Create a new CMYK document 23cm wide x 29.7cm high with a resolution of 300dpi. Now open "Rough_paper.jpg" from the download folder. Shift-drag it’s thumbnail into your working document as a new layer and label it "Paper." Both files share the same pixel dimensions, so holding Shift while dragging pin registers the new layer in the exact position.

Step 11

Open "Distressed_book.jpg" from the download folder. Shift-drag as another new layer, then set the Blending Mode to Hard Light, and label it "Distress." This is a scan from a worn book cover and if you zoom in you’ll notice a coarse screen – remove this by choosing Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and entering a value of 1.5px.

Step 12

Download these Watercolors, open "mdp-watercolour60.jpg," then drag/drop as a new layer and position as shown. Set the Blending Mode to Multiply and label it "Watercolor 1." Next, hold Alt while selecting Hue/Saturation from the drop-down menu under the Create new fill or Adjustment Layer icon. Now check the Use Previous Layer to create clipping mask option in the dialogue box and click OK.

Step 13

In the next window set the Hue to -140 and the Saturation to +20 and click OK. Clipping adjustment layers to single layers gives greater flexibility over standard adjustment layers, which will not only modify your target layer, but those beneath it too.

Step 14

Open "gomedia-watercolor18.jpg," then drag/drop as a new layer above the adjustment layer and position as shown. Now set the Blending Mode to Multiply and label it "Watercolor 2."

Step 15

Download and open the sky image, then drag/drop as a new layer and label it "Clouds." Set the Blending Mode to Linear Light and drop the Opacity to 42%. Now blend the layer transparency by double-clicking its thumbnail to access the Layer Styles and drag the whitepoint Blend If slider to 205. Refine the blend by holding Alt to split the slider and drag the left split to 47.

Step 16

Clip a Color Balance adjustment layer using the same technique as detailed in Step 12. Set the Midtone Red to -94. Now select Highlights and set the Red to -63.

Step 17

Add a mask to the "Clouds" layer and then select the Gradient Tool (G). Pick the Linear Gradient preset, ensure your foreground is set to Black and Shift-drag upwards on the mask to erase the hard edge. Now fine-tune by using a large, soft-edged brush set to a low Opacity to erase further areas as desired.

Step 18

Drag/drop the top layer from the model document and label it "Girl." It needs a fair amount of re-sizing, so Transform in a couple of steps, each time applying a small amount of Unsharp Mask (20% and 3.0px) and position centrally. It’s good practice to re-size in steps, using small amounts of Unsharp Mask rather than in one big jump. The Smart Sharpen filter also produces the same effect.

Step 19

Now it’s time to fix any areas you’re unhappy with. Choose the Clone Stamp Tool (S), select the Current Layer preset and use a small soft-edged brush to clone out the zipper on the model layer. Now use the same technique on the "Distress" layer to eliminate any blemishes as shown.

Step 20

Command-click the "Girl" layer thumbnail to generate a selection, then switch to your channels palette and add a new channel. With your foreground set to black hit Delete to fill the active selection with white and label the channel "Girl."

Step 21

Let’s change the color of the girl’s tights to a bright yellow to tie in with the fluorescent yellow. First, select the Pen Tool (P) and ensure the Paths and Add To Path Area presets are checked. Now zoom in and carefully plot your paths around her shorts leaving the wire as shown.

Remember to use the Alt, Command and Shift modifier keys as you work. You can also fine-tune your path by holding the Control key to access the Direct Selection Tool to adjust the direction/anchor points.

Step 22

Command-click the path thumbnail to generate a selection, switch to your channels palette, then duplicate the "Girl" channel and label it "Tights." Go Select > Modify > Feather and enter a value of 1px. Now hit Shift + Command + I to Inverse the selection, then hit Alt + Delete filling the selection with black.

Step 23

Generate a selection from your "Tights" channel, highlight your top CMYK composite channel and switch back to your layers palette. Target the "Girl" layer and hit Command + M to access the Curves dialogue box. Select the Cyan channel from the drop-down menu and drag Input/Output sliders as shown. Now select the Magenta channel and drag the Output slider to around 23. When you’re done hit OK.

Step 24

Tidy up your layers by placing all the watercolors, cloud, paper, and distress layers into a new group folder and label it "BACKGROUND." Now open "Spray_1.jpg" from the download folder and use the Magic Wand Tool (W) at a low Tolerance with Contiguous unchecked to select the image.

Copy > Paste as a new layer above the group folder. Pick 100% Magenta and 100% yellow as your foreground/background colors and hit Alt + Delete a couple of times to fill the active selection with the foreground color. Follow the same technique for "Spray_2.jpg" hitting Command + Delete to fill with your background color. Duplicate the layers and position behind the figure. Finally, label all these layers accordingly and add them to a new group folder labelled "SPRAY PAINT."

Step 25

Time now for some background graphics; launch Illustrator and have fun creating some funky shapes. It’s easy to create a series of striped art brushes from squares – there’s a more in-depth tutorial here.

Now add some cool drip effects using a teardrop shaped art brush, remember to keep your colors bright; I used 100% Magenta, 100% yellow as well as 100% Cyan and black. The "Graphics.ai" is in the download folder for those of you who want skip this part. When you’re happy Copy the graphics to the clipboard.

Step 26

Create a new group folder labelled "BACKGROUND GRAPHICS" beneath the "Girl" layer, then Paste > As Pixels, transform/position as shown and label it "Graphics 1." Continue adding smaller graphics to your composition and set their Blending Modes to Hue for the time being. Remember, on large, multi-layered files to label your layers appropriately.

Step 27

Download and open the tree. Select the black areas using the Magic Wand Tool (W) and Copy > Paste as a new layer within the "BACKGROUND GRAPHICS" folder, setting the Blending Mode to Multiply, then transform/position to the left of the model’s hair. Repeat using another tree, then choose Transform > Flip Horizontal and transform/position to the right.

Step 28

Open the "Ink_splats.jpg" from the download folder and select the black areas with the Magic Wand Tool. Select one group of splats at a time by choosing the Lasso Tool (L) and with the Subtract from selection option checked draw a marquee around the unwanted areas. With the remaining group selected Copy to the clipboard.

Step 29

Add a new group folder above the "Girl" and label it "FOREGROUND GRAPHICS." Now Paste the ink splat over the model’s hair, transform/position and set the Blending Mode to Multiply. Continue to Copy > Paste different ink splats using the same method. Revisit the Illustrator file and Copy > Paste the smaller graphics over the model as shown. I also used a dingbat for the butterfly.

Step 30

Download and open the balloon and go Filter > Extract (Shift + Command + X), then use the Highlighter Tool to paint around the edges, also check Smart Highlighting when painting over any well-defined areas. Now use the Fill Tool to retain the inner of the balloon. When you’re done click OK.

Step 31

Drag/drop the balloon as a new layer at the top of the stack within the "FOREGROUND GRAPHICS" folder. Intensify the colors by clipping a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and setting the Saturation slider to +49.

Step 32

Before we start creating the spot color channels, sit back and review your composition, because now’s the time to carry out any final tweaks. I duplicated/transformed some of the spray-paint layers and set their Blending Modes to a combination of Color and Soft Light.

Now reinstate the Cloud mask by using a large, soft-edged bush set at a low Opacity, then some of the background graphics were set to Soft Light. I also transformed and duplicated some of the watercolor layers. Finally, I added the PSDTUTS logo above the balloon within the "FOREGROUND GRAPHICS" folder.

Step 33

All the colors are looking vibrant, except for the model. Duplicate the layer, position above the original, then set the Blending Mode to Vivid light. Keep things tidy by adding the two layers into a new group folder labelled "GIRL."

Step 34

Target your "Graphics 1" layer within the "BACKGROUND GRAPHICS" folder and select the Magic Wand Tool (W). Ensure Contiguous is unchecked and select the pink areas. Now go Select > Modify > Expand by 1px. Later in the tutorial you’ll be knocking out CMYK areas, so you need to expand the selection to allow the spot color to bleed fractionally under the CMYK inks – this compensates for any slight movement on the press and is known as Trapping.

Switch to the channels palette and use the fly-out menu (top right) to select Spot Channel. In the next window click on the color chip to access up the Color Libraries, then from the drop-down menu select "PANTONE solid coated" and use the scroll bar to pick "PANTONE 806 C" (which will be towards the end of the list). Don’t worry about the Solidity setting under Ink Characteristics – this only controls how the ink appears on-screen and has no effect on the actual printed result.

Step 35

With the new channel targeted fill the selection with black. By highlighting the CMYK composite channel at the top of the palette you’re now able to see how the spot channel works (I’ve disabled the visibility of the "Graphics 1" layer for clarity). You’ll be toggling the visibility of the CMYK composite channel a lot from now on, so if you find you’re unable to work on your layers, it’s because you’ve not got it highlighted.

Step 36

Switch back to the channels palette and disable the visibility of the CMYK composite. We now need to erase areas where you don’t want ink to appear on the "PANTONE 806 C" channel – remember what’s black will print solid fluorescent pink. First, generate a selection from the "Girl" channel, Contract by 1px and fill with white. (Remember when filling with black – Expand your selections by 1px and when filling with white – Contract them by 1px). Now use layer-based selections from the birds and the butterflies to fill areas with white and a selection from the PSD logo filling with black.

Step 37

Switch to the layers palette and disable the visibility of all layers/folders except the "GIRL" folder. Now use the Eyedropper Tool (I) to sample a bright pink from her tights and go Select > Color Range. Set the Fuzziness to 53 and click OK.

Step 38

Target your "PANTONE 806 C" channel and fill the active selection with black – you don’t need to expand this selection because these areas will be overprinted with CMYK.

Step 39

Use the Magic Wand Tool to make selections from the pink areas from the small graphics in your "FOREGROUND" folder and fill these with black – again you don’t need to expand any selections because these areas will be overprinted also. Remember to fill areas with white where the ink isn’t required.

Step 40

Target your "Graphics 1" layer again and make a selection of the yellow areas (Expand by 1px). Now follow the same procedure as detailed in Step 34 to create a new spot channel, this time choosing "PANTONE 803 C" and filling with black.

Step 41

Take your time over the next few steps, as it’s very easy to work on the wrong channel by mistake! Knock out areas with white (after Contracting by 1px) and preview the two spot channels independently as well as toggling the visibility of the composite channel to check everything. It’s also a neat trick to create areas of contrast, so you get fluorescents butting up to a CMYK equivalent – as I’ve done on the butterflies.

Step 42

Switch to your layers palette and disable the visibility of all folders except the "GIRL" folder. With the folder targeted, use the Eyedropper Tool to sample a yellow from the wristband. Go Select > Color Range and set the Fuzziness slider to 53.

Step 43

Target your "PANTONE 803 C" channel and fill with black, again no need to expand the selection because these areas will be overprinted with CMYK.

Step 44

We’re now going to boost the yellows in the balloon by adding fluorescent yellow; disable the visibility of all the other layers/folders and target it. Now use the Eyedropper Tool to sample a yellow, then do a Color Range selection, setting the Fuzziness slider to 130.

Step 45

Switch to your channels palette, target the "PANTONE 803 C" and fill the selection with black (no need to Expand). Now generate a selection from the yellow type on the logo layer, (Expand by 1px) and fill with black on the same channel.

Step 46

At this stage I decided to add some pink fluorescent into the balloon. First, target the layer and clip a Selective Color adjustment layer, choose Reds from the drop-down menu and boost the Magenta by setting the Red slider to -94.

Step 47

Disable the visibility of all the other layers/folders except the balloon and follow the same Color Range technique as Step 44, (but sample pink). Now target your "PANTONE 806 C" channel (no need to Expand) and fill with black.

Step 48

Enable the visibility of all layers/folders, then Command-click the "Logo" layer icon to generate a selection. Now add to the selection by targeting your "Graphics 1" layer and using the Magic Wand Tool with Contiguous and Sample All Layers unchecked to select all the magenta and yellow areas. Now target your "BACKGROUND" folder and go Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection.

Step 49

Generate a selection from the mask by Command-clicking it’s icon, then Inverse (Shift + Command + I). Now target your "SPRAY PAINT" folder and go Layer > Layer Mask > Hide Selection. You should now have identical masks on both group folders.

Step 50

Add an identical mask using the same technique to the "BACKGROUND GRAPHICS" folder, but this time modify it by using selections from your two bird layers and filling with white. The masks have now knocked out all the relevant CMYK areas – allowing the pure fluorescents to show through.

Step 51

Now you need to create a separate channel for the UV gloss varnish. Switch to your channels palette, then use the fly-out menu to select New Channel, check the Selected Areas option and label it "Spot UV varnish." Now drop the Opacity to 2%, click the color chip, then in the next window click the Picker and select 20% Cyan. It’s irrelevant which color or Opacity you choose, as the varnish is clear – this just gives you an on-screen representation.

Step 52

Generate a selection from the "Girl" channel – you don’t need to Expand or Contract selections, because the varnish is overprinted last. Now with your "Spot UV varnish" channel targeted fill the active selection with black. Because the varnish is a clear lacquer, the channel needs to be 100% black, so it requires a little more contrast. Hit Command + L to access the Levels dialogue box and set the midpoint to 0.22 and the whitepoint slider to 233 – you can also use the Burn Tool (O) set to Shadows to darken the edges of the hair.

Step 53

Fill selections generated from the ink splats and the logo block with black. Now erase areas by filling selections generated from some of the smaller graphic layers with white – remember what’s black prints as varnish.

Step 54

Save, then flatten the file, retaining the spot color/varnish channels and deleting the extra "Girl" and "Tights" channels. Now go Shift + Command + S to Save As. Select TIFF under the Format drop-down menu, check the Alpha Channels and Spot Color boxes and you’re done. Your printer can now output all seven channels as printing plates.

Step 55

It’s always been difficult to accurately hard-proof spot colors because they get broken down into the nearest CMYK equivalents. You could ask your printer for an analogue "Cromalin" made from the printing plates or even a wet proof – both of which are quite costly.

Alternatively, soft proofing with Acrobat Professional allows you to preview individual plates, and has taken a lot of the guess work out of spot colour work.

If you incorporate a lot of special print finishes and want to give your client the wow factor – it maybe worth investing in Esko Visualizer which I used to create the "Spot_colors_illo_best.mov" movie file in the "source" folder. Esko Visualizer allows you to quickly create and share ultra-realistic on-screen mock-ups and soft proofs of complex print finishing effects by simply loading a PDF.


I hope this tutorial has taken some of the mystery of working with special print finishes. The extra cost implications don’t always make it suitable for every job, however it’s down to you to make these techniques fit into your own projects.

Why not ask the printer to mix a percentage of fluorescent ink into the CMYK yellow, or even substitute the magenta ink with a metallic pink! If it’s down to budget you can still achieve some great effects by limiting yourself to one or two spot colors (on a two color press) then printing a UV gloss varnish on selective areas. Have fun!

The final image is below.

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