Skip to Content

How to separate cmyk 4 color process for screen printing in illustrator?

Screen printing is a popular printing technique that allows printing on a wide variety of materials like paper, plastics, glass and textiles. It uses a mesh screen stencil to apply ink onto the printing surface. Screen printing requires separating artwork into different color layers that will each be printed with a single ink color. For full color designs, this usually means separating into 4 layers – cyan, magenta, yellow and black (CMYK).

Adobe Illustrator provides tools to easily separate artwork into CMYK layers for screen printing. Here is a step-by-step guide on how to prepare artwork with separated CMYK layers in Illustrator.

Step 1 – Create Artwork in CMYK Color Mode

First, ensure your Illustrator document is set up for CMYK color mode. This can be changed in the Document Color Mode under File > Document Color Mode. Setting up as CMYK from the start will ensure accurate color separation and avoid any conversion issues later.

Step 2 – Assign Colors to Separate Swatches

Next, assign all colors used in your artwork to named swatches in the Swatches panel. Using named swatches allows easily separating colors later. Make sure to use CMYK swatches rather than RGB swatches for accurate print results.

To create a new CMYK swatch, open the Swatches panel, click the dropdown menu and select New Color Swatch. Name the swatch and define the CMYK values. Repeat for each color used.

Step 3 – Group and Lock Colors

It helps to organize related elements or objects of the same color into groups. Select related objects and press Ctrl/Cmd + G to group them. This keeps them together when separating colors.

Also lock any objects or groups that should not be separated by selecting them and clicking the lock icon on the Layers panel. This prevents accidentally selecting them when separating.

Step 4 – Separate into Spot Color Layers

With artwork set up, it’s time to separate colors. First, separate into spot color layers for each ink color:

  1. Select all objects of the first color swatch to separate.
  2. Click the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel to create a new layer.
  3. With objects selected, click the label of the new layer in the Layers panel to target it.
  4. Click the label again to rename it for the ink color, like “Cyan”.
  5. Hide the new color layer by clicking the empty box next to it.
  6. Repeat for remaining ink colors to generate separate layers for each.

Step 5 – Convert Spot Layers to CMYK Channels

The spot color separation layers now need to be converted into CMYK channels:

  1. Open the Channels panel.
  2. Drag each spot color layer onto the Channel panel. This converts it into a CMYK channel.
  3. Rename each channel to match ink names.
  4. Delete the original spot color layers, leaving only the CMYK channels.

The Channels panel should now contain four CMYK channels ready for exporting separations.

Step 6 – Export Separations from Channels

With CMYK channels set up, you can export separation plates:

  1. Go to File > Print.
  2. Under Color, choose Separations.
  3. Click Print to bring up export options.
  4. Select an appropriate file type like TIFF.
  5. Export each separation channel individually.

This will give you four separate CMYK files ready for screen printing. Be sure to export at 100% size and high resolution like 300-600 dpi for best print results.


Separating CMYK artwork in Illustrator is straightforward using swatches, layers and channels. The key steps are:

  • Set up document in CMYK mode
  • Create CMYK swatches for colors
  • Group and lock objects
  • Separate colors into spot layers
  • Convert layers into CMYK channels
  • Export CMYK separations

Following this process results in clean, professional CMYK separations ready to print. With practice, separating complex artwork becomes quick and efficient.

Accurate color separations help avoid issues like colors overlapping or dropping out during printing. Taking time to properly prepare files in Illustrator leads to best print results. So don’t skip this critical step before sending artwork off for screen printing!

Color Separation Layer CMYK Channel
Cyan Cyan Layer Cyan Channel
Magenta Magenta Layer Magenta Channel
Yellow Yellow Layer Yellow Channel
Black Black Layer Black Channel

This summarizes the key steps in separating CMYK colors in Illustrator for screen printing. Let me know if you have any other questions!