Automated Color Separation Software

Steve Yates is a graphic professional and automation developer in the garment printing industry with more than 20 years of experience. Author of a library of time saving add-on software programs for CorelDRAW and Photoshop Yates has an extensive background in garment print design and high end color separation. View his library of videos at Visit Reach Yates at

It’s amazing how far we’ve come in the screen-printing industry—all the way from homemade, two-color, lazy-susan presses to super-fast, 16-color automatics. But nothing says progress as much as the way we’ve evolved with color separations for film positives. 

It doesn’t seem that long ago when we’d take hand-drawn, pencil-sketched images from artists and black line (or “ink”) them with rapidograph pens after the customer approved the multiple changed and/or corrected sketches, then take a photo of the line art on the stat camera, scratch off the paste-up shadow edges and fill in the pin holes with red opaquing pens. Next, we had to scratch off a handful of Letraset letters for small type, swivel-cut ruby, amber and halftone—which, of course,  would get stuck in our hair (when we had hair)—on a light table with multiple taped color separation sheets of acrylic for each color. Remember applying the tape registration marks as close as you could get them? All that and more had to be done before the color separations went to production to burn the screens—which in itself was another long, creative process. Anyone who’s been around long enough just smiled because that very lengthy process is as outdated as the “I’m with Stupid” T-shirts and has been gradually replaced by quick, automated “push button” color separation software.

For many, Illustrator and CorelDRAW replaced photo blue pencils guided by French curves while Photoshop replaced a lot more tools than just the air-brush. Those three programs and many more replaced glue-pens and white-out for pasting up artwork and the stat camera that shot it. A great majority of our art departments are now comprised of one or more MACs and/or PCs and one or more inkjet and/or laser printers. We’re better because of it; what once took all day or better to cut color now takes minutes to color separate. 

We now have the ability to color separate photos and photo realistic images and multi-colored designs quickly. What we once did with expensive, sent-out, drum-scanned four-color process films we can now do quicker, with more precision and with way more pop. We can set it up faster because of indexing and simulated process or any hybrid between the two that use screen-print friendly spot colors. 

Computers and software have changed many of our processes and pre-press production is definitely no exception. If the stat camera hadn’t been sold on Craig’s List when that window was open, it’s now a planter or an anchor. We’re faster, better skilled and way more compact. Artwork and separations are mostly done on a laptop and can be done from anywhere.

Finally, automated color separating programs have come down considerably in price. When the first color separation software came out it was about $15,000. The price itself was a pre-qualifier to its clientele. Only the very well-established could color separate high end color. Now anyone with $100 and up can color separate and sell garments with high-end color separations to compete in this less-than-booming economy. 

Speed as an asset

Color separation software such as T-Seps (formerly Fast Films), Easy Art, Spot Me and Spot Process are just a few color separators for Photoshop. CorelDRAW color separation software such as Vector Sep or Pixel Splitter have further changed the way we do color separations in that they produce in a few minutes or less what took hours in the past. Even for those who know how to color separate like a pro, the production-speed benefits these programs offer help shops to compete in this fast-paced industry. Speed is a huge asset and many jobs will look great with as-is automated separations printed with right-out-of-the-can colors. 

Obviously, a design with seven reds, four blues, a black, a highlight, a base and green foil won’t work for most color separation programs, but a great majority of high-end decorations can be done with automated color separators and be out of the art department, on the press and into customers’ hands faster than without these new automated programs. Anyone who has been to a trade show such as The NBM Show has seen first-hand the quality of printed shirts that were color separated with automated color separators. These shops’ art departments are generating dollars.

Features and functions

Features on some color-separation programs include registration marks as well as the ability to include job information on the films. Others include the ability to make line art from photos, and add distress and edge effects and more. Most even include half-toning which, together with a high-contrasted print driver setting for opaqueness, could keep one from having to buy expensive RIP software.

Most color-separation software for Photoshop works in the action palette where it will look at an image for a fixed palette of colors. It finds and creates spot channels for those colors. While the program may not find the exact seven reds I spoke of above, for example, it will find the equivalent of the image’s colors in its fixed palette to create those colors. And, while you may not have a 14-color press to print every screen, you can pick and choose which spot channels you’d like to use. So, if there isn’t any purple in the design, you don’t need to print the blank purple channel. You can also combine channels to create mixed colors to lower the screen count—yellow with red halftones, for example, to create an orange. 

CorelDRAW color separation software works differently. Since CorelDRAW uses vector graphics to create artwork, colors are assigned to objects as individual objects are created. Vector Sep, for instance, seeks out spot colors (specifically, Pantone colors) to create a custom separation palette. So, anything that can be assigned a Pantone color (vector shapes, monochrome bitmaps, etc.) will be added to the separation palette and separated onto individual pages. 

While CorelDRAW is a vector-based program, it does have the ability to use various bitmap images including RGB bitmaps. What’s more, CorelDRAW has the ability to convert anything on the page to a bitmap. To take advantage of this CorelDRAW feature, Pixel Splitter software, for example, color separates the bitmap rather than the vector. This technique gives the user the ability to do high-end color separations similar to those found in Photoshop. Pixel Splitter also allows users to select their own colors from a 25 color fixed palette as well as a gray-scale and opaque under-base. This type of color choice method gets the user closer to being able to choose their specific colors.

Mesh matters

No matter if separations are done manually or automatically, or in Photoshop or CorelDRAW, high-end halftone or index dots require the use of screen meshes higher than 110… and if this is the case, get used to the idea of using 305 or better. The screen needs to be able to keep the dots on it and, if the mesh openings are bigger than the dot size itself, the physics won’t be on your side after a few wet prints. It’s important to use a dense enough mesh count to host the small dots that create the killer graphics you’re after. More often than not, the beginning of the run will look better than the end of the run for the guy who uses a 110 screen. So own your seps and use high mesh. Get a few bucks together, buy a new, budget-friendly automated software and sell high-end designs.