Sublimation - Back to basics: Color Management

Kevin Lumberg sublimation specialist

Kevin Lumberg has over 18 years of experience in the sublimation industry at all levels from sublimation shop owner, to managing the Johnson Plastics Plus dye-sublimation business for over 13 years. Currently, Lumberg is responsible for business development of the Duraluxe product line in North America.

Matt Woodhouse is a Sublimation Sales Specialists at Johnson Plastics. Visit Johnson Plastics on the web at For further information, Matt can be reached at 866-869-7829 or by email at

With the arrival of a new year, it is good to examine what worked well over the last year, and what could use improvement. One of the things that seems to elude many people starting out in sublimation is reproducing colors in a predictable and reliable manner. While this might sound easy, if you do not have the basic tools and knowledge, color issues can be some of the most daunting challenges to overcome.

Why is color management so difficult? Scanners, digital cameras, monitors, and printers all reproduce color differently. The result is that several factors are involved, piecing together a very complex puzzle.


WYSIWYG or what you see is what you get. While it is certainly desirable to have the color displayed by our monitors corresponding to what we get on a sublimated product, it is rarely the case. One thing that, at least with our decorating method, is so different is that we are going to change the molecular properties of the dye particles under the heat and pressure in the heat press.

This fact alone makes matching up an image to a monitor nearly impossible. So that begs the question of how do you get the accuracy of color you are looking for? The answer is to follow some basic rules and use the tools the industry provides.

RGB versus CMYK:

One of the biggest mistakes any sublimation decorator can make is to use the wrong color model when choosing colors. CYMK or (Cyan, Yellow, Magenta, and Black) comprise the basic four colors all ink jet printers utilize. It is simple to falsely think that because the printer is using CMYK colors, that a design should be created using the CMYK color palette.

If CMYK colors are used, the last thing you are likely to see is the color you are looking for to be on the finished item. This is because CMYK is a set of very specific color instructions meant primarily for the offset printing world. When we are sending art to a desktop printer, the print driver is responsible for translating the information it receives into CMYK. So what color model should colors be chosen from? RGB is the answer!

RGB or Red, Green, and Blue are the colors that create the images you see on every computer monitor, digital projector, and television available. 16,581,375 colors can be created using the RGB color model, which are able to give us lifelike reproductions of events (especially with newer Hi-Def televisions and monitors). The result is that RGB has become the primary color model used in many industries, and all artwork for sublimation should be designed this way.

ICC Profiles:

The International Color Consortium is a group that sets standard guidelines for color management in the digital imaging/printing world. All monitors, scanners, digital cameras and printers use ICC profiles, which are found on the disc and installed with the device drivers. Color profiles simply let one piece of hardware or software know how another device has created its colors, and how they should be interpreted or reproduced.


While decorating products via sublimation, we must always keep in mind that we are working with semi-translucent dyes. This results in the background color of an object changing the color we are trying to print. While white items are the most common to decorate, white points vary significantly between the different sublimatable items available.

Even more complicated are colored garments that can significantly change how our artwork is reproduced. The result of this is that each substrate requires different outputs to get the same color results.


Color Charts:

The most basic tool for accurate color reproduction is a simple color chart (See Figure 1). Color charts should be printed and pressed on each of the substrates being used. By getting a “real world” representation of the color on the exact substrate we are going to use, we will achieve accuracy.

All that is needed is to choose the color from the printed chart, then enter the corresponding RGB number back into the graphics program. Regardless of what color you are viewing on the screen, you can have confidence that you will achieve the desired color output.

ICC Printing Profiles:

One of the methods we have for color correction is an ICC profile. As mentioned earlier, profiles are how each of our digital devices communicates color to another. The same basic concept is true here. ICC profiles have been created to match the ink being used, with a specific substrate. In a desktop printing environment, the ArTainium brand of inks use this method.

The profile created for this ink line is a bit more generic, based upon the ink and a hard-surface substrate combination. This method, while it does work well for many, can leave quite a bit of work for the decorator. If an image is to go on several different products, without some tweaking in the graphics program, it will look a bit different on each item.

PowerDriver Pro:

PowerDriver is a Windows-based color-management program specifically designed for the SubliJet brand of ink. PowerDriver is a unique solution for color accuracy, as it operates in lieu of the Epson print driver. With the pull-down menu found under the “substrate” header (See Figure 2), we can see that from gold metal to poly fabric, most of the items we will sublimate have been profiled.

This means, in the example of a logo placed on several substrate types, we can simply tell our printing system what we are sublimating, and it will make the necessary adjustments. This can be an incredible time-saving tool.

PowerDriver also comes with its own color chart/palette system. The Color Sure color palette is automatically installed into CorelDraw or the Adobe programs upon installation of the PowerDriver software. This will give us a palette that we can choose colors from that will perfectly match a color chart the program can generate. Convenience and ease of use are what PowerDriver is all about!

RIP Software:

RIP software is a tool for professional series printers that can help with page layout, duplication, inserting variable items (names, photos, etc) into a stock layout, reduce ink usage and give greater color accuracy. RIP technically stands for Raster Image Processing. This term has been loosened in recent years. A good example is taking a CD & “Ripping” it to our computer via programs like iTunes, or Windows Media Player. So terminology is a bit less important than what the software can do.

Rips generally are set up as an after step from our graphic-design program. We will still design our art in programs like CorelDraw or Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop, but we will not be printing directly from them. We will instead export our image out of our graphics program and import it into the rip software.

A rip differs from the other methods of color management by offering a significant amount of fine tuning. A step that most businesses take when using a rip is to do periodic linear density configurations (See Figure 3). This involves printing out and pressing a color target, then using a spectrophotometer (a very high-end scanner) to read the colors back into the program.

This will allow the software to compensate for performance differences encountered using a printer over time. For those who require creating their own ICC profiles, rips will often have profiling software available as an add-on.

About the only downfall to a rip is the price. The basic programs are usually over $1,000 by themselves. Advanced features of the programs are separately purchased, including the color profiler, which is nearly $3,000. In addition, the spectrophotometer needed to create profiles or to do linear density tests runs about $1,000. While this may sound like a lot, if the tool is needed for the job, it usually pays for itself in enhanced performance and time savings.

Wrap Up

Many a decorator has spent a considerable amount of time cursing their sublimation system for not giving them the color they were looking for. All of that frustration can be avoided. Color management may at first seem like a mystical event, taking place inside our equipment. Once the proper tools and techniques are employed, achieving accurate colors can be just a mouse click away!