Heavy blacks

Using heavy blacks in artwork for printing

by Dean Cook, April 19, 2016
Category: Blog,   Tags: artwork, colour values for black, design, heavy blacks, production,

Working with black in print isn’t as black or white as you may think. As a print designer, there are three variants of blacks. Dean Cook peers into the depths of the black to explain when and where they should be applied.

Believe it or not, there are three main types of black available to us in commercial printing. You have the standard black, the heavy black and the registration black. On your screen, each looks identical, but in print, the results are very different.


100% Black (K) is mainly used for black text. Technically this standard black is set in InDesign (and other programs) to overprint backgrounds to avoid ink misregistration when the document is printed. However, to apply a standard black to solid areas, such as a background in an advert, it becomes apparent that just using 100% black is weak. So what can you do to deepen the black further?


Increasing the colour values of Cyan, Yellow and Magenta aids density making the black a deeper black. Very often we see designers ramp up all the CMYK colour values to 100%. However, this only causes problems once the artwork is in the press and too late to rectify. Using 100% of all colours uses an awful lot of ink. Therefore, the print-minder would need to slow the press down to ensure the ink is evenly applied but also to avoid misregistration. Additionally, the ink is now certain to take longer to dry and could affect delivery times. Over-using ink can also increase the risk of scuff marks when the document is finished. Not only this the heavy ink can ripple the paper making it more difficult to finish the document at the binding stage. Finally, and more importantly, any thin white/reversed out type used within the artwork will ‘fill in’ as the ink spreads when it’s applied to the paper, therefore, making the text difficult to read. Never apply 100% of all colours to solid backgrounds.

So what is the correct colour values to gain a nice heavy black?

Having spent over 25 years in commercial printing, I have always remained firm with the colour values of 30% Cyan, 30% Magenta, 30% Yellow, and 100% Black. This particular colour value will avoid white text and thin white lines filling in if there is a slight misregistration; printing can still be run at a full rate of knots; lengthy periods of time waiting for the print to dry before the pages are bound and finished is avoided; delivery dates are not missed; and, more importantly, you won’t be disappointed with the results.

In the image above, you can see the artwork on the left side shows the text has filled in caused by overuse of colours. The artwork on the right is using 30% of CMY and 100% K – it is dense, but more importantly, the text has far better clarity.


Finally, there is registration black which does carry 100% of all colour values. So, if designers shouldn’t be using 100% of colours in artwork for print then why is it there? Simple…it only applies to printers marks (crop, fold, trim, etc.) which are printer outside the trim edge. Because  100% of each colour is used, the print minder uses this as a tool to align the inks, gain density readings and offer marks where the document needs to be trimmed at which point the purpose of registration colour is complete.

As a rule of thumb: Standard 100% K is for text only; Heavy Black (30% C, 30% M, 30% Y, 100% K) to get nice solids; and 100% of all CMYK colours is a registration black and should only apply to printer’s marks.

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