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Quick Tip: How to Fix Muddy Gradients in Adobe InDesign

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Read Time: 4 mins

If you spend a lot of time in Adobe InDesign, then there's a good chance that you've encountered a gradient with a muddy-looking, off black and dulled transition. This phenomenon happens a lot when using the default black. In this tutorial, we'll take a look at a few methods you can use to correct that muddy look in both process (CMYK) and spot color gradients. Enjoy!

Section 1: Process Colors (CMYK)

Before we jump in, let's look at an example of what we mean by a muddy gradient. Below you will notice that I've used the Gradient panel to create a red-to-black gradient using swatches from the Swatches panel. For more information on working with color in Adobe InDesign, check out this article by James Andrew Quick Tip: Color and InDesign.

The image below shows the resulting gradient. You can immediately see how the colors appear muddy and gray.

The cause of the muddy gradient is due to the lack of color in the black (note that the black contains no cyan, magenta, or yellow). As the black shifts toward the red, it has to go through the only other 'color' it contains, and that's gray (hence the muddy color).

Process Colors: Method 1

Let's take at one way to set up a proper gradient. Use the Rectangle Tool (M) to draw out a box and give it a solid red fill.

Next, Copy (Ctrl + C) and Paste the box into place (Ctrl + Alt + Shift + V).

Now, set up a black-to-white gradient (if it's not already set up) using the Gradient and Swatches panel. Drag and drop the colors onto the gradient bar to define a gradient.

Next, drag the gradient swatch in the Gradient panel to our Swatches panel.

Assign the gradient color to our top box.

Next, open the Effects Panel (Window > Effects) and, with our black and white box still selected, set the Blending Mode to Multiply. Now we have a gradient without any muddy colors.

Process Colors: Method 2

Let's take a look at the second way to fix a muddy gradient using process colors.

This time, start with the Swatches panel. Click and Drag the black swatch to the New Swatch icon to make a duplicate of this swatch (we will edit this later).

In the Gradient Panel, set up a red-to-black gradient using the black copy we just created. Drag the gradient preview to the Swatches panel to create a new gradient swatch.

Next, create a new shape on our canvas and apply the new gradient to this shape. It should be no surprise that we still have a muddy-looking gradient.

To correct the muddy gradient, we can edit the black swatch to introduce some red color. Double-click the "Black copy" swatch and edit the Magenta and Yellow sliders to introduce red into the black. It is important to note the percentages of all four colors—they should add up to a number less than 300%. Check with your printer for their recommendations.

The gradient should automatically update. As you can see, our gradient no longer contains muddy colors. While we are still technically using black, we've modified it into a rich black which contains enough additional colors to make a cleaner gradient.

Section 2: Spot Colors

Often times, a designer might be required to create a 2-color design. Fixing a muddy-looking gradient using spot colors requires a slightly different approach.

Let's start by picking our two colors. We'll choose the default black since it's a common choice when working with two-colors (especially when working with large amounts of copy). For the other color, we'll choose PANTONE 186.

When working with process colors in the previous steps, we had the option of using a Blending Mode trick to create a smoother gradient. Unfortunately, we can't use Blending Modes and still keep our document at two colors. With that in mind, there is another option we can use to create spot color gradients without a muddy transition.

Using the two spot colors (black and PANTONE 186), set up a gradient swatch and apply it to a new shape on our Canvas. As predicted, we have muddy colors.

To fix the muddy color, we will create a third color by mixing our two spot colors. Not only will the mixed swatch introduce some of the red color into the black, but it will also keep our document at two colors (since it's just a mix between the two existing colors).

In the Swatches panel, click the fly-out menu and choose New Mixed Ink Swatch. In the Mixed Inks Panel, adjust the sliders to create a new color that uses a heavy combination of both inks. To learn more about Mixed Ink Swatches, take a look at this Quick Tip by James Andrew, Quick Tip: How to Create Mixed Ink Swatches with InDesign

Now, edit our gradient by replacing the default black with the new Mixed Ink Swatch. Our shape should instantly update with a proper gradient.


That's it! As you can see, it doesn't take much effort to produce a proper gradient. Now, we no long have to worry about seeing those muddied colors in our designs. For more information on colors and color theory, check out this article by Iaroslav Lazunov Open the Door into the Science of Color Theory.

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