Produced by KelbyOne

Spot-Color Separations in Photoshop CS5

You’ve made a great design for a client and now they need it printed on T-shirts—and they have asked you for separations. Although talking to a T-shirt screen-printing company for advice is always a good idea, here are the basics of making spot-color separations.

Before we go into a detailed description of creating separations in Photoshop, here’s a quick primer. A two-color logo, in this example green and gold, requires two separations: one for each color. When you look at the separated artwork, whatever is being printed at 100% appears black while anything using less ink (to create a lighter color) appears in shades of gray. Notice that some of the design is missing on the gold color artwork where the green text will print.

When you’re working with existing artwork in Photoshop and you don’t have layers, you have to manually create the separations by selecting each main color and creating spot color channels. Your job will be easier if you either have an image with a limited number of colors, or you alter some colors to limit the total number of colors. To get started, open Photoshop and go to Window>Application Frame to set up your canvas (you’ll need this for the next step). Then, go to File>Open to open your existing artwork.

One of the simplest ways to create a spot color version of a document is to create a second document the same size as the first. To do this, go to File>New and in the New dialog, click the Preset drop-down menu and choose your existing artwork document. Click OK. This will create a new document the same size as your original. To make things easier, go to Window>Arrange>Tile to create a split screen of your two documents.

In your original document, choose Select>Color Range to select your first color. (Choose a main color at 100% opacity, not a color that’s at a reduced opacity.) Make sure the Image radio button is active, and use the Eyedropper tool in the dialog to select an area of your first color (we chose the dark red color) in the dialog’s preview section. After you’ve made your selection, activate the Selection radio button to see your selection as a mask, with the white areas representing your selection and the black areas indicating what isn’t selected. Using this option will help make your selection precise.

Very often you’ll need to move the Fuzziness slider to include all the selected areas, but if you do, be careful not to go too far, or similar colors will be selected. One way to help with this is to change the Selection Preview from None to White Matte. This will show a preview on your document with your selection in color and everything else in white. In our example, the selection we made showed that some of the lighter red color was being selected, so we pulled back the Fuzziness slider slightly (we’ll add the lighter colors later).

Click OK to accept the color range settings and press the M key to select the Rectangle Marquee tool (or any marquee tool, it doesn’t matter which one). Place your cursor on a portion of your selection and your mouse will turn into a white arrow with a small selection box underneath. When this happens, click-and-drag your selection into the second document, and then hold down the Shift key to center it on the document. Then, in the Channels panel (Window>Channels), click the flyout menu and choose New Spot Channel.

In the New Spot Channel dialog, name the channel and make sure that the color swatch holds the color you want to use. Click OK. Depending on the advice you get from the screen printing company, you can either choose a Pantone color or “any” color that your screen printer will replace with the actual color—the important thing here is separating the colors. Since you have a selection, the spot channel will automatically appear in color in your document, and black on white in the Channels panel.

Create additional spot channels for each main color (shades of the main colors—reduced opacity colors—will come later). In the main document, press Command-D (PC: Ctrl-D) to deselect your previous selection and follow Steps 4 through 7 to create new spot channels. Note: After making each selection, click the color swatch at the bottom of the Toolbox to note the color being selected; if you don’t do this, Photoshop will use the last color selected when a new spot channel is created. Eventually, you’ll have a spot channel for each main color, and the image will look pretty good with only a few missing pieces.

Now go back to the main document and select the lighter, reduced opacity version of the first color (in this example, the lighter red color). Again, use any marquee tool to drag-and-drop the selection into the second document, and press-and-hold the Shift key to place the selection in the center of the document.

Make sure the appropriate spot channel (for our example, the red spot channel) is active in the Channels panel, and then go to Edit>Fill. Because we want this to print as a lighter version of our color, select 50% Gray from the Use drop-down menu and click OK. On the document image, you’ll now see some lighter red areas while on the spot channel in the Channels panel you’ll see 100% black and 50% black.

Repeat this operation for each of the lighter colors, clicking the appropriate spot channel before filling. Once you’re done filling the spot channels, you can delete the other default channels (RBG, Red, Green, and Blue) by selecting them in the Channels panel and clicking on the Delete Current Channel icon (trash can) at the bottom of the panel—leaving you with just the spot channels that you created.

Just to make sure that everything worked the way you intended, take a look at each spot channel, remembering that 100% black represents 100% of your color and the gray areas show where the color will print lighter. To do this, click the Eye icons on and off before each spot channel in the Channels panel. To view your first spot channel, turn off the other channel’s Eye icons, leaving the first channel’s icon on. Repeat for each channel.

You can also do a test print to make sure that each color prints as a separation the way that you expect. Choose File>Print and in the Print dialog, make sure Color Management is selected at the top right. Set Color Handling to Separations. In our example, we chose Landscape for orientation and enabled the Scale to Fit Media checkbox. We also went back up to the Color Management menu and selected Output. In the Printing Marks section, we enabled the Calibration Bars and Registration Marks checkboxes. Now when you print, you should get a separate piece of paper for each of your spot channels.

Before saving your file, check with your screen printing company to see what format they require: they may be happy to get your Photoshop document saved as a standard PSD, or may suggest that you choose Photoshop DCS 2.0 as the format.



  • erick says:

    you should do the design in illustrator instead, way to many steps

  • Roscoe says:

    I agree with Erick. It is not only important to learn how to use the programs, but also important to learn to use the correct program for the task at hand.

    This project should be done in Illustrator. Not every project has to be done in Photoshop.

  • Darrell says:

    Not all projects can be done using illustrator. In this case based on the design, Illustrator was most appropriate however, there are bitmap designs out there that contain a spot color which needs proper optimization in Photoshop.

    I myself have worked on several projects for a client needing spot color separation using Photoshop. The issue here was that the client’s branding and logo used a spot color blue that would print more like a purple in a bitmap file. Using cmyk for this blue produced the same results. So in this case, so in this case spot-color separations in Photoshop was appropriate.

  • Brad says:

    This process is okay if you need to send and individual file for all separations that can be previewed as the finished product. The method I use is to open the file to be separated, select all of the same color and create a new layer using the layer via cut function. While I still have that selection I go to edit > fill > black. Repeat this process moving each new color onto its own layer. Once this is done I move each layer so that it does not intersect another and send it to a RIP and print it to film. Way less steps and gives you the same results.

  • Ann Barber says:

    Could you also follow this process to do a “color accent” image – where save a layer of color to go over same image in black&white or sepia tone? Note I only have Photoshop 7 and just now bought Photoshop Elements 8, so haven’t tried yet in Elements for this effect.

  • Amber says:

    Well I think we should not argue too much over different methods. Its nice someone took the time to create this tut and I learned something new from it.
    It would be nice to see a complicated piece in Illustrator with gradients and transparencies as well as creating traps and knock outs color seperated and prepared for postscript to send the films out for print.

  • Peter says:

    While I agree that this kind of art is best done in Illustrator (and InDesign where applicable), this article saved my butt when a vendor provided design assets in Photoshop format (becaues they are addicted to Photoshop) that I, years later, had to covert to 1 PMS + Black for a print project.

  • Saul Gadsden says:

    This was REALLY HELPFUL when it came to a two color DRAWING done with a marker that I had to prepare for silk screening. Thanks for the tutorial!! Great Job!

  • iran lama says:

    dear sir/madam

    i want to color separation in cs 6 with 6 color for flexography to make clihe. could you tell me how can i do.