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Color Matching Made Easy

One of the most troublesome painting problems for any painter is color match.

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

When the vehicle manufacturers
can hold a color standard, color match will be much easier; until
that time, painters will have to tint and blend many vehicles
to achieve an invisible repair – the ultimate goal of any production
painter.

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I’ve been around long enough to remember many
heated discussions about the desirability of blending a mismatch
onto adjacent panels. "If the edge of the repainted panel
doesn’t exactly match the edge of its neighboring ones, the customer
is being cheated," said one side.

Unfortunately, chasing that elusive, dead-on
color match took too much time – much more time than was allowed
on the repair order. I’ve always believed that the best repair
is the one done correctly in the least amount of time and kept
invisible to the customer. With the following matching method,
those are the kind of color matches you’ll be able to do.

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Test Panels

Any productive discussion about color match
begins with the dreaded test panel. Painting the vehicle with
an untested color – and then unmasking to find the color isn’t
right – wastes valuable time and expensive materials. Unfortunately,
most painters do exactly that before they consider using a test
panel.

A test panel – often a treated paper card,
half black and half white – is used to determine when the color
applied to the two-tone panel is shot to full hiding. When the
paint covers the test panel completely, you can’t see the difference
between the black and white halves. In these days of translucent
base colors, this may create a problem if the painter keeps shooting
until the black and white card is uniformly colored. If the color
in your gun doesn’t want to hide very well, chances are the color
at the car plant didn’t hide well either. One possible solution
to prevent the overhidden color is to seal the test panel with
the same color undercoat the auto factory used. Two or three coats
of a poor hiding color over the same colored sealer the car factory
used may provide the best chance of a match.

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Productive Paint Matching

Making money in the paint shop means keeping
the painter productively occupied while the current coat of primer/paint/clear
is drying. However, there are operations that shouldn’t be performed
during these intervals. Machine sanding the next car in line will
get the painter covered with dust; polishing the last car painted
with a pad and compound will contaminate the painter’s clothes
also. One of the best ways to productively spend the down time
between coats is to do something about the color on an upcoming
job.

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That something starts with looking up the
complete paint-code number on the vehicle. Car manufacturers really
do want you to be able to repaint their damaged automobiles quickly
and correctly, so use all the information provided on the paint-code
tag to locate the formula the car and paint manufacturers think
will match. This "prime" or "standard" color
formula will match the majority of vehicles painted with that
particular code. However, the car in your shop may not have been
painted with that exact color. The paint companies watch for a
measurable drift away from a color standard for any given automobile
color. When they can identify enough cars painted with the "off-standard"
color, they develop an alternate formula to match just those cars.

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With the possibility of an off-standard color
in your shop, diligent ground work by the painter includes examining
all color offerings for that paint code. Sometimes, the off-standard
offering is displayed on a chip; other times the color is described
– but hearing a color described as "darker flop and redder
face" may be less than you, as a painter, want.

Mixing the Match

The best way to proceed is to mix up a small
amount of the suspect color and shoot a test panel. Mixing small
amounts is a snap on a computerized mixing scale – all you need
to do is specify the number of ounces you want. Another way to
mix small amounts of color quickly is to simply slide the decimal
point one place to the left. For example, one quart is 32 ounces,
so by moving the decimal point one place to the left, you can
mix 3.2 ounces of color.

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Once the test quantity of color is mixed,
make sure to spend enough time stirring or shaking the paint to
ensure thorough mixing of the tints. Reduce the small amount of
color with the same reducer you’ll use to paint the car, and then
spray a test panel with the same spray gun at the same air pressure
you’ll use when painting the actual surface. In an effort to speed
this process, I recommend the painter force dry the test panel
with a heat light or heat gun between coats.

As soon as possible, clear the test panel
(when the original finish is base/clear) with any clear. Using
the same high-solids, isocyanate-catalyzed clear that will be
applied to the vehicle is not necessary on the test panel. An
aerosol can of clear lacquer or clear enamel will work fine to
determine a blendable color match. Not clearing the panel at all
and trying to wet the basecoat with water or wax and grease remover
to simulate a clearcoat is a bad plan. Any "clear" that
flashes off the test panel won’t provide an accurate picture when
comparing the panel and the car. Aerosol clear will work fine
as long as the clear in the spray can is as yellow or as clear
as the real clearcoat.

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Let’s say that the first off-standard color didn’t look good enough
to try a test panel. Your next step: try another alternate formula.
Try mixing 3.2 ounces of the new color (let’s say it looks more
like the car) and apply the color to a test panel, drying between
coats with a heat gun. Clear with an aerosol clear and compare
the test color to the car. Still not close enough to blend? Now
it’s time to tint the color to get closer to that of the car.
Remember, though, the object is to find a color that can be blended
onto the adjacent panels, not to butt match the car.

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Color Theory

There are three dimensions to color theory. The color wheel isn’t
a wheel at all but rather a globe or a ball. Part of the confusion
surrounding color tinting is that the three dimensions – out the
center spoke, around the outside edge, and down the north and
south pole – each have several names to describe the same parameter.

For example, the measurement around the outside is correctly called
cast, hue or color. The down axis is called light/dark, value
or lumination. And the out-spoke on a color wheel is correctly
called richness, strength, saturation, intensity or chroma (no
wonder people are confused).

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My method doesn’t use any of these terms. Here’s how it works:

There are only three primary colors – red, yellow and blue. Draw
a circle and place one of the three primary colors on the color
wheel. Place the remaining two colors at equal distances around
the circle, in any sequence. Now, plug in the secondary colors,
which are the three colors made by blending two of the three primary
colors in equal parts. Most folks can tell you what color results
when mixing blue and yellow – green. Fewer people can name the
color made by mixing yellow and red – orange to us industry insiders.
The color resulting from a combination of red and blue is the
toughest for most folks to name. Depending on where and when you
went to grade school, that color is either violet or purple.

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Now, with the six colors marked on the circle that represents
the "around dimension" of color theory, it’s possible
to start tinting.

The most difficult component of color matching is the out-spoke.
The problem is that a color wheel is really three dimensional,
not flat. Matching a color isn’t as simple as moving three steps
from the center of the wheel toward the edge. The color could
be three steps out, two steps left and two steps up (this is why
color-tinting school lasts three days).

The "down dimension" is the easiest to correct. Anyone
walking by your paint shop can tell if a color is lighter or darker
than another color. To make my abbreviated color-tinting system
work, we’ll ignore the down dimension for now (that was easy enough),
and we’ll endeavor to move the color around the wheel’s edge first
and fix the down (light/dark) problem last.

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Methodology

The notion with my method is that a color can only be off toward
its direct neighbors – the color one place left or right on the
color wheel. For example, if you had a red car, your color could
be off by being too orange or too violet, period. It won’t be
off by having too much yellow, green or blue – those aren’t neighboring
colors. Likewise, if you had a blue car, the color could be off
by having too much violet or too much green – blue’s neighboring
colors.

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Sometimes, the problem is determining which way to move, left
or right. The solution is pretty simple. Take two identical drops
of the color you’ve mixed up. To one drop, add a small amount
of the "left" tinting color, and to the other, add a
dab of the "right" tinting color. For example, if the
car you’re working on is green, take two drops of the green color
directly from the can. To one drop, add a little of the yellow
mixing color found in the formula. To the other green drop, add
some of the blue mixing tint found in the formula.

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Rather than producing the perfect color, this test will instead
identify the tint that’s obviously wrong. For example, when you
stir the yellow tint color into the green drop, it will make a
new color. Likewise, the green drop stirred with the blue tint
color will make a new color. One of these new colors will look
nothing like the color you’re trying to match, so now you know
it’s the other tint color that needs to be added to your green
color to match the car.

At this point, a light goes on in the heads of painters who have
been horribly confused about color tinting. "Hey," they
say, "that’s easy."

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The hard part comes in determining how much of that tinting color
– once chosen – should be added. Color tinting is a time-consuming
process. This simple method will get you off in the right direction,
but the actual tinting task is still difficult and tedious. Tint
small amounts of color at one time and measure the amount of tint
you’re adding on a scale.

After moving your color in the right tinting direction, you may
still need to lighten or darken the color. One choice is to move
the color around the wheel first, then do the light/dark adjustment.
Sometimes, it’s beneficial to alternate "hits" to the
color between the left (or right) tint and the tint that will
lighten/darken the color. Use aluminum or pearl to lighten reflecting
colors; use white to lighten solid colors. Avoid using black to
darken colors that don’t contain black in the formula. Instead,
try using the darkest shade of the major tint in the formula.
Shoot test panels when you think the tinted color is close enough
to blend.

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Note: The matching method described won’t be much help when your
color-match problem is white, silver or brown. White and silver
aren’t found on the color wheel, and the entire center of the
wheel is brown.

Applying Theory to Practice

The good news is that this simple system of three primary colors
drawn on a circle will lead you to a blendable color match – most
of the time.

As you recall, we skipped the most difficult part of color tinting,
the "out" dimension. As a result, the method I’ve just
described will only produce a blendable color about 80 percent
of the time. The other one in five cars will need to address the
third color dimension – the out-spoke – to achieve a blendable
match.

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No matter what color car you’re painting or how many color-wheel
dimensions you must explore to get a color match, remember that
blending is the goal – not butt matching. Don’t make your job
any harder. Once a color is close enough to blend, stop tinting.
It’s as easy as that.

Mark Clark, owner of Clark Supply Corporation in Waterloo, Iowa,
is a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

Check It Out

Chasing that elusive, dead-on color match can take a lot of time
– much more time than is allowed on a repair order. To get the
best blendable match in the least amount of time, remember the
following color-matching points.

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  • A test panel is often a treated paper card, half black and
    half white. It’s used to determine when the color applied to the
    two-tone panel is shot to full hiding.

  • Start your color-matching process by looking up the complete
    paint-code number on the vehicle. This "prime" or "standard"
    color formula is the one the car and paint manufacturers think
    will match the majority of vehicles.

  • When paint companies can identify enough cars painted with
    an "off-standard" color, they develop an alternate formula
    to match those cars. Sometimes, the off-standard offering is displayed
    on a chip or is described.
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  • Mix up a small amount of the suspect color and shoot a test
    panel. If you don’t have a computerized mixing scale, mix small
    amounts of color by sliding the decimal point one place to the
    left.

  • If your first color doesn’t look good enough to try a test
    panel, try an alternate formula. If it’s still not close enough
    to blend, tint the color. Remember, the object is to find a color
    that can be blended onto the adjacent panels, not to butt match
    the car.

  • To begin tinting, draw a circle and place the three primary
    colors – red, yellow and blue – at equal distances on it. Between
    those colors, place their secondary colors – green, orange and
    purple. These six colors marked on the circle represent the "around
    dimension" of color theory.
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  • With my method, a color can only be off toward its direct
    neighbors – the color one place left or right on the color wheel.
    For example, if you had a red car, your color could be off by
    being too orange or too violet, period.

  • To determine which way to move, left or right, take two identical
    drops of the color you’ve mixed up. To one drop, add a little
    of one of the tinting colors; to the other drop, add a little
    of the other tinting color. This will identify the improper tinting
    color.
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  • Avoid using black to darken colors that don’t contain black
    in the formula. Instead, try using the darkest shade of the major
    tint in the formula.

  • This simple method will get you off in the right direction,
    but the actual tinting task is still difficult and tedious. Tint
    small amounts of color at one time and measure the amount of tint
    you’re adding on a scale.

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