How Does CMYK Screen Printing Work?


Do you know what happens when colors match creativity? 

Well, magic happens!!

And this is what we are going to create in this article – Magical Creations!

Yes, we are going to learn about printing beautiful designs on t-shirts using the popular CMYK technique!

Also called the '4-colour' printing process, this technique is known for achieving natural and realistic prints 

We can recreate any image on a garment with just four colors!

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black are broken up into their primary pigments to create realistic images using halftones and white – until we get the desired result!

So would you like to dive into it to know more?

Well then, let’s begin!

What is the CMYK Technique?

CMYK technique, which is the abbreviation for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black, is a method of printing that uses these four colors to produce vibrant images.

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black, are also known as 'process' colours

They reproduce other dyes in different combinations and ratios in the visual color spectrum! Although Green and Orange are somewhat difficult to reproduce in the CMYK model, we can always print them as additional spot colors that are brighter and more saturated!

However, the metallic shades and the fluorescent ones are not possible to print in this technique.

The CMYK technique, also called the ‘4-colour’ printing process, is a popular and highly effective t-shirt printing technique

It involves photographing an image three times while using the three primary color filters (Red, Green, and Blue).

We get three shots, where each is made up entirely of its respective primary dye. Once the negatives come out, the red gives away a Cyan image, Green gives Magenta, and Blue creates a Yellow effect.

These three negatives are then combined and produce an original image right from scratch.

As there is no dark element involved, black becomes the 4th color out of the CMYK family. We can also use green and orange to balance out the darker areas of the image, which ultimately results in a six-tone print.

The CMYK screen printing process is generally carried out on white or light-shaded garments

The inks used are also semi-transparent and look good in white or very light shades.

In this process, which involves printing too colorful images, CMYK inks absorb some wavelength of light while reflecting the others: it is also called the ‘subtractive’ color theory. Here, the two secondary colors (corresponding to the primary ones that they produce) are absorbed – or subtracted – from the reflected light received by our eyes.

If you see a CMYK image very closely, you will see small halftone dots that make up the color we usually see when printed!

How CMYK Screen Printing Works

As mentioned before, CMYK is one of the most popular techniques in screen-printing worldwide.

This is how a screen printing machine looks like:

Now, let’s see what screen printing is all about and what makes it so popular. 

In screen printing, a thick, colored ink is pressed through a screen by squeegees.

This printing method has had widespread popularity for a long time, and the only difference now is that it has been automatized.

So you may be wondering what makes screen printing so popular?

Well, a part of the magic is in the inks used in screen printing!

The inks used in this method are thick, and the outcome is a vibrant image having an almost true-to-life quality. The color too lasts longer if we use premium inks. Low-quality materials fade away quickly, leaving your t-shirt looking weird. 

Screen printing is suitable for bulk printing of t-shirts as it comes out to be a cost-effective method. 

You can print anywhere between 200 to 500 T-shirts with just a gallon of screen printing ink, depending on the size of the design, the quality of the ink, the squeegee pressure applied, the number of strokes, and the mesh count of the screen. 

The CMYK process requires densely woven screens with a recommended mesh count of 305 or even slightly more.

The thickness of the mesh should also be acceptable, keeping 34 Micron as a good rule of thumb for the 305 mesh count. 

Maintaining the tension of the screen is also a critical step, as loose screens come up with blurry images due to improper color mixing. 

The recommended screen tension is about 25 newton per centimetre square

However, it should not go less than 22 or beyond 30 and be maintained in between. 

Pros of Screen Printing

Screen printing is widely used in the T-shirt industry due to its vibrancy in the printed design, even on darker fabrics.

This technique also allows you to reproduce a design multiple times

You can reuse the same stencil repeatedly to recreate the same design, thus making it easier to produce multiple copies of the same garment.

If you are proficient enough and using professional equipment, you can create intricate multi-colored designs too!

Although the process has its complexities where it limits the number of colors that your printer can use, still it allows you the more intense ones that you can ever achieve with the digital printing method!

As for the latter, we have dedicated an entire article ongo check it out!

Step-By-Step Process

This technique involves using a special light-responsive emulsion to create a custom stencil with an emulsion as a light-reactive medium.

image 4

Step 1. Creating the Design

We take the printout of the design we want to print on the t-shirt and make a stencil out of it. A transparent acetate film creates the stencil. The printout is now taken out on this film.

Step 2. Preparing the Screen

The printer chooses the mesh screen depending on the complexity of the design and printed fabric’s texture. Next, a layer of light reactive emulsion is used to coat the mesh screen, and this is allowed to dry and harden under bright light. 

Step 3. Exposing the Emulsion to Light

Now we take the acetate sheet with the printout of the design and place it over the emulsion coated screen. To harden the emulsion, the entire set-up is exposed to very bright light.

The only portion of the screen covered with the design remains unhardened and in liquid form

The next step is to make multiple screens using different stencils for one design – keeping in mind the number of colors used. We need to design each stencil for a multi-colored product and keep them lined up, thus ensuring a hassle-free printing process. 

Step 4. Creating the Stencil 

As the screen is exposed to bright light for hardening, the areas covered by design are still in liquid form.

A wash is then performed to remove the uncured emulsion. You can now clearly see how the drawing is engraved on the screen. It makes for the ink to pass through during the printing process.

Once the screen has dried, we can make any final adjustments to ensure a smooth, accurate stencil imprint

What remains is a ready-to-use stencil!

Step 5. Preparing for the Printing 

As we have the screen with us, we’re going to pass it on to the printing press. What comes next is placing the fabric (or the t-shirt) onto the printing board underneath the screen while making sure it is laid down perfectly flat.

Step 6. Pressing the Ink

We lower the screen onto the printing board that holds our t-shirt. Now, we add the link at the top end of the screen and, by using a squeegee, we pull it along the entire length of the screen.

This allows pressuring the ink through the uncovered areas of the stencil and imprinting the design on the underlying fabric. 

If we want to print multiple T-shirts, we just need to replace this one with the new one on the printing board and repeat the process

Once done with all the t-shirts that belong to this specific design, we can remove the emulsion using a special fluid meant for this purpose. At this point, the mesh is ready to be reused, and we can make new stencils out of it.

Step 7. Drying Up and Final Check 

The final step involves passing the t-shirt through a dryer where the ink is dried up and ‘cured’ for a better finish. It also ensures that the printing has fixed well onto the fabric and has developed a smooth finish. 

The T-shirt is then washed thoroughly to remove any residue.

What’s The Difference Between RGB and CMYK?

When designing custom t-shirts and other promotional items, we usually use two color models, RGB and CMYK, at different project phases. While drawing on a computer, most designers use the RGB model to add the same design when printed. Then, it is converted to the CMYK one by the printer.

These two approaches result in a significant variance among the colors displayed on the screen and the printed one.

RGB for Designing

A TV or monitor (light-emitting device) is an RGB-based display, meaning it shows red, green, and blue tones.

As RGB is an 'additive' colour process, it creates all other colours while combining different red, green, and blue quantities

By mixing them equally, the white tone comes out. RGB is preferred with most applications as it provides a visible contrast between the dark screen and the light-emitting range, which is the primary effect required.

CMYK for Printing

Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (the ‘K’ stands for Black) are the four colors of CMYK.

As the print process starts on a light background - white tissue paper or light-coloured - it is considered the CMYK colour model "subtractive"

The different inks subtract the white from the final image to create the print. When combined in equal amounts, Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow produce a grey color (also called “composite” black). But to sharpen the image and get a visible contrast within the print, we need to add a layer of black which makes up the 4th layer.

For this reason, this model is also known as four-color printing!

Why Using CMYK for Screen Printing? 

  • The CMYK model has been tested and used for decades as it is the most economical printing method (digital printing on a larger number of copies turn-out to be comparatively expensive.)
  • When sending the RGB image on a white or light shaded surface, it appears darker, and it can only reflect or absorb light (and not add it as it could do on the monitor).
  • The image has to be necessarily converted into a CMYK format for printing purposes.


So here we are, with a complete guide to the entire process of CMYK screen printing. We hope this article serves as a piece of informative material for you and sheds enough light on how you can screen print t-shirts using the CMYK process, along with a crisp description of this popular technique of fabric printing!

Print On Demand World Staff

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