Color Swatches and Palettes for Sublimation

In recent years, sublimation printing technology has seen many improvements. Advances in ink, print head, and paper technologies have made the process of achieving high quality designs with brilliant colors easier than ever. Despite these advancements, there are still many situations where colors must be adjusted to achieve the desired print results. For example, color matching an existing color requires highly accurate color reproduction. One example could be matching an existing company logo. Choosing the correct settings, calibrating the computer monitor, and using a spectrometer to accurately sample colors are all options for getting an accurate color match. However, these tools and options can often be beyond the scope of what many sublimation users are capable of or want to be troubled with.

While utilizing reliable and reputable software, color profiles, high quality sublimation papers, and modern color correction tools are a great starting point, they may not always be enough. Sometimes, only one or a few colors in a design may not print as expected, while the rest of the design colors are rendered perfectly. Whether there are only a few colors in a design that need attention, or if all colors of a design need to be determined before final output, sublimation swatches and color palettes are a quick and easy tool that can be utilized for such a need. Sublimation swatches and color palettes impose minimal additional cost of time or materials and are great options for the job.

Printing and sublimating color palettes are a simple and effective method to pre-determine how the colors of a design will appear when the final design is produced on the sublimated product. There is no extra equipment needed apart from the equipment that is already used to produce sublimated products. The palettes can be considered a “master color key” that can be used for a single sublimation job or be kept handy as a reference tool for repeated sublimation jobs in the future.

Sublimation color palettes can be very broad in spectrum, covering a wide range of colors. If only a range of a single color is needed, then the color palettes can focus specifically on that one required color. The examples below show a standard RGB color palette which exhibits a wide range of colors within the RGB color space. In contrast, the RGB palette on the left is compared to a palette (right) that is focused on one specific color. In this example, a variety of shades of red is the focus.

standard RGB color palette which exhibits a wide range of colors within the RGB color spacestandard RGB color palette which exhibits a wide range of colors within the RGB color space
Red RGB color paletteRed RGB color palette

While these examples show an entire swatch palette, in some cases it is not always necessary to print the entire palette. Printing only a small portion of the entire palette will narrow the focus to only what is needed for the color matching requirements of the design. This can reduce the amount of additional sublimation materials needed for the color palette sample.

Red RGB Color PaletteRed RGB Color Palette

If a wider range or spectrum of colors is needed than what a simple RGB swatch palette can offer, printing a ‘full’ RGB palette may be necessary. A full RGB palette will show an entire range of colors that can be produced within the RGB color space. These wide-range palettes will often require multiple larger sheets of sublimation paper and potentially multiple larger pieces of sublimation materials to produce. Printing a full RGB palette is best utilized as a permanent color “key” that is saved and used or referenced many times over a long period of time.

Full RGB palettes are normally displayed in a grid layout. The colors shown will all consist of a value of red (R), green (G), and blue (B). They will often appear as shown in the example below.

Full RGB Color PaletteFull RGB Color Palette

The X and Y axis will represent two out of the three colors (R, G, or B) and the third color will often be shown at the top as a single number. This means that all colors in that specific grid/page will possess within them the value of that single color. In this example the values of red (R) are listed along the X axis (left to right). Green values are listed along the Y axis (up and down). All colors in this grid have no blue in them (blue=0).

Navigating the colors of a full RGB palette is simple. To find the R, G, and B color values associated with the chosen red color on the above palette, simply select the desired color swatch within the grid and then follow the color squares out from the chosen color swatch to the edges of the palette up or down, and left or right. Then note the numbers. In the above example, the number found when moving up or down is the red value. The number found when moving right or left is the green value. The blue value is “0”, which is noted at the top of the palette.

We will look at a simple sublimation project that requires a color match for part of the design. In the example project below, the red is not a match for the existing logo design. Notice the red color of the logo appears to be more of a pink hue.

Red color on name tagRed color on name tag

To find the correct color needed for the logo, we will utilize the full RGB color palette. First, a single page of full RGB palette is printed and sublimated onto the same hardboard material that will also be used for the final product. We do not need to print the entire multi-page palette for this project. Since we only need to match a single color, the palette is narrowed down to only a single page. The chosen page contains a range of red colors we are most interested in, and for the time being, assume it contains the color needed to achieve the correct red color of the logo.

Printed & Sublimated RGB Color PalettePrinted & Sublimated RGB Color Palette

It is important to note that the color palette needs to be sublimated using the exact same time, temperature, and pressure settings as the final sublimation product. This is extremely important for maintaining consistent color accuracy between the color palette and the final sublimated design. Heat pressing the color palette for shorter or longer than the final product will alter the color results between the pieces and cause unwanted color variances. In this case, the settings used are 375°F for 60 seconds and medium-high pressure. (In order to ensure balanced heating on the press, the bottom platen of the heat press was also preheated using the same time and temperature before sublimating the palette.)

Examining the palette after sublimating onto the hardboard shows the colors as they will appear if they are applied to the final sublimated design. From the color palette, it is decided that the circled color is the color needed for the final sublimated design. For the chosen color, we can reference the color numbers that define the color values needed to create the chosen color swatch. From the color numbers, we now know that the red color in the design will need to be changed to R=225, G=30, B=0.

Red Color Found on RGB Color PaletteRed Color Found on RGB Color Palette

Referencing the chosen red color swatch numbers from the palette, the color is then adjusted in the design layout program.

Red Color Comparison on Name TagsRed Color Comparison on Name Tags

The final design is printed again, now with the corrected color applied to the logo. The design is then sublimated using the same heat press settings as the sublimated color palette.

Red Color on Finished Name TagRed Color on Finished Name Tag

Comparing the original design (top) to the newly adjusted design with the corrected red color (bottom), note the difference between the red colors. The original red color almost appears to be completely pink as opposed to a faded red, when compared to the desired red color.

Red Color Comparison on Finished Name TagsRed Color Comparison on Finished Name Tags

Looking at the initial vs final sublimated designs against the RGB color palette, the advantages of utilizing color swatches and palettes for color matching and/or color corrective purposes is clear. The three sublimated pieces pictured below were the only pieces created to find the required color for the project, as well as produce the final product. There was no need to print and sublimate multiple samples to find the right color needed for the job, which therefore saved time, money, and materials. This method of utilizing sublimation color palettes to find the desired colors for sublimation projects is fast, simple, effective, inexpensive, and recommended for sublimation users of all levels.

Red Color Comparison on Finished Name Tag & RGB Color PaletteRed Color Comparison on Finished Name Tag & RGB Color Palette

For further questions or information about integrating and utilizing color palettes into your sublimation process, please contact the Johnson Plastics Plus Customer Success Team. Our team of experts are available by appointment-based calls Monday - Friday 8:00 am - 5:00 pm EST. For any other questions or inquiries, please give us a call at 800-869-7800 or visit

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