When my print rep talks about five-colour printing, what does he mean? I know you have cyan, magenta, yellow and black - but what's the fifth?

  • 1
    White of course! Commented Jan 6, 2011 at 3:30
  • I am assuming that you are making a joke with that one... :) Commented May 26, 2011 at 11:31
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    Very rarely I’ve had print reps, but never printers, call the backside of a 4-color print job the 5th color. The printers had colorful names for these individuals.
    – user179700
    Commented Jul 30, 2011 at 9:18
  • Matt: we did have a client ask about putting white ink into the office laser printer. We assured her that we could print the job for her. :) Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 11:00
  • Linked: graphicdesign.stackexchange.com/questions/9397/…
    – e100
    Commented Sep 7, 2012 at 13:39

6 Answers 6


In Offset printing the fifth colour is an additional spot colour, which could be anything (of course depending on the printer/printer services). I've yet to hear what is the single most common "fifth colour".

Why? For example in (now discontinued) hexachrome (CMYKOG, yes 6 colours) printing process orange and green were added to achieve wider colour gamut and better colour reproduciton. Also, it could be unmixable colour such as Pantone metallics or fluorescent to add more effect, or some secret mixture which would be printed onto your paper money for added security.

And as Philip Reagan commented, the fifth colour is usually a crucial colour for the corporate/brand image, such as the "Coca-cola red", "IBM blue" or "Ferrari red"; when the colour is best to be consistent (and not dependent on the mixing).

The most accurate answer, with cost estimates, you can only get from your print rep.

  • 2
    I think the most common "fifth color" would be the color needed for consistent branding, like "Coca-Cola Red". Commented Jan 5, 2011 at 16:39
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    Sometimes the 5th color is a varnish (google: spot varnish).
    – horatio
    Commented May 24, 2011 at 21:49
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    I've been way out of the print design loop...I had no idea hexachrome is no longer done. It was a promising option a few decades ago. FYI, one of the more popular 5-color printing examples in the past was WIRED magazine. They were known for printing every issue in CMYK with one additional flourescent/neon/metallic spot color.
    – DA01
    Commented Sep 27, 2011 at 15:56
  • @DA01 - Pantone's Hexachrome may be discontinued, but I am fairly sure something similar is still used in packaging - i.e. 6 (or 8?) colour process rather than 4 + spots.
    – e100
    Commented Oct 3, 2011 at 17:56
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    Hallmark™ uses only spot colours. As a matter of workflow, they don't even call them that. They refer to "special" colours in house. A 10 colour job would not be unusual for them. I heard a talk by their head of production at a GATF conference.
    – Stan
    Commented Aug 31, 2013 at 19:03

In addition to koiyu's excellent answer, a fifth color might be a "double hit" of a color which is being printed in CMYK, to make it pop. For example, Pantone 186 red might print a little muddy in process, so a fifth plate is added of the same Pantone 186 in spot, to make the red brighter.

I've also heard of the fifth "color" used to refer to a varnish coat, because it's a fifth plate.


Depending on your printer and printing process, 5-color printing does not have to include C, M, Y, or K. I worked in a print shop in 'long ago times' (shortly after Guttenberg got his start) and we would generally not overprint any of the colors, so a very complex job could have 6 or 10 distinct colors that were printed individually. Each of those colors would be distinct and unique, none of them were cyan, magenta, or yellow.

It has become much more economical in modern printing to use CMYK colors to overprint (blend colors on the page) to create the full spectrum of color without having to load the press with a custom or Pantone ink.


Normally this would refer to a spot colour printed alongside process colours. The most common application for this to use spot black ink for text in a process colour document. Process black is translucent and not suitable for printing black text, so a spot black is often used for black text on a process colour document. Many colour glossy magazines are done like this.

Other applications include colours that can't be reproduced in process colour, such as metallics, or specialised inks such as varnish.


It could also refer to a varnish or aqueous coating. Many printers in the CT area refer to this as a 5th color when quoting a job.

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    yep, I've seen jobs which are eight-color: CMYK, three spots, and an aqueous. Commented May 25, 2011 at 1:41

I'm seeing two blacks spec'd on new moderately priced large format printers. Matte and Gloss + the usual three colors.

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    – Vincent
    Commented Aug 24, 2017 at 12:34

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