Use this easy-to-follow guide to add spot colors in Adobe Photoshop, using Selections and Channels to get exacting results.

Adding spot colors to your Photoshop file allows you to specify the color used for selections. This means you can select a Pantone swatch from a swatch book, and be guaranteed to get that exact color printed.

In this guide, we’ll look at how spot colors work in Photoshop, as they’re a bit different from Illustrator or InDesign. Though we typically lay out print jobs in those programs, you can bypass them for simple dabs of spot colors needed for pure-imagery printing.


What Are Spot Colors?

First, let’s recap color spaces, then see how Spot colors fit in. Photoshop can be used in both the major color spaces: RGB and CMYK. The color space RGB is used to calibrate colors for screens. That means TVs, monitors, phone screens, anything where an actual light source makes the colors.

We use the color space CMYK when mixing reflective ink or paint. Colors, shades, and hues are created by mixing certain values of Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black (K) which result in those colors. This is called a CMYK mix.

A spot color is a separate ink layer, specifically chosen because the particular color is necessarily pre-created. This is used in branding, where a specific shade of, say, red represents the company’s brand. A different shade of red does not match the company’s branding, so a spot is used to ensure that the right red is used.

Any time a color has to be, ahem, spot-on, or very precisely that color in print, a spot color is used, extra to the CMYK mix.

These spot colors are generally chosen from any of the versions of the Pantone swatch library. The versions include coated (for paper with a matte or other type of coating), or uncoated (raw paper with no allowance necessary for coating). There are other versions with metallic, neon, and pastel inks.

There are many varieties of Pantone spot color swatches, all necessary for absolutely nailing the specific color. This eliminates any issues due to printer quality or variances in personal eyesight keenness.

Design Tips: Using Spot Colors in Adobe Photoshop — Pantone Colors

Image via spicyicecream


How to Use Pantone Spot Colors in Photoshop

If you know the spot color you will use, simply open one of the Pantone libraries within Photoshop and choose it from the list. When the file is saved it will contain that spot color, which the printer will then apply using the same number. Since the number of that ink adheres to a standard in a system, it will be correct every time.

Whether using the Brush or Fill tool, you can define the Foreground Color to be the Pantone spot you choose. Then, the file will contain that spot color as a Spot Channel

How to Create a Spot Color in Photoshop

In Photoshop’s CMYK file mode, each color gets its own Channel. This way, you can select how each color is represented on its own. To see this, go to Window > Channels. In the Channels window there will be channels for each of:

  • CMYK – all the channels visible, showing the image in full color. For the following, only that color will be shown, if represented in the image.
  • Cyan
  • Magenta
  • Yellow
  • Black

Create a new spot color in Photoshop by adding a new Spot Channel

We’ll use this example of some layered modern art blobs to show how to add one in a Pantone spot color, by creating a Spot Channel.

Design Tips: Using Spot Colors in Adobe Photoshop — Layers

First, add a new blob for the spot color. We’ll create a selection with the Lasso tool.

Design Tips: Using Spot Colors in Adobe Photoshop — Lasso Tool

Hold Command and click the New Channel icon (hold Control for PC) at the bottom of the Channels window. A window will pop up where you can choose the Pantone spot as well as the Solidity, which is the opacity of ink coverage.

Design Tips: Using Spot Colors in Adobe Photoshop — Spot Channel Options

Click on the Color: icon to open the Color Picker. Click on “Color Libraries.”

Design Tips: Using Spot Colors in Adobe Photoshop — Color Libraries

Choose a library from the Book drop-down menu to find your Pantone swatch.

Design Tips: Using Spot Colors in Adobe Photoshop — Choose a Library

Now you will fill that selection and create its own Spot Channel. Edit the shape by using the Eraser. Add to it by using the Lasso, Wand, or Pen tools, or any other selection tools.

Design Tips: Using Spot Colors in Adobe Photoshop — New Spot Color Shape

Cover image via Alexei Zatevakhin

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