From Original Art to Prints for Visual Artists

I have recently had several artist friends ask me questions about the process of getting prints and note cards made from their original artwork. Since my “day job” background is in Graphic Design with heavy experience in printing, it makes sense that they would come to me for this information. This got me thinking that this would make a good blog topic. So this blog post is for my artist friends who need the basic information for preparing art and digital files for printing. This post will not be about the philosophy of offering prints versus original art only. That is a whole post on it’s own, and not a topic I will approach lightly.

The Print-making Process

The Print-making process breaks down into 3 basic steps:

  1. Creating a digital file from original art
  2. Digital file manipulation (Color correction, DPI and file formats)
  3. Choosing a printing method (print at home, print on demand or offset printing)

Creating a Digital File

To begin the process, you will need to have a high resolution, color correct digital file made from your original art. There are two basic ways to do this.

Scan: If you have a decent flatbed scanner at home and some basic knowledge of file manipulation and color correction, you can attempt this method yourself, assuming you work in graphite, acrylics or any other medium that can tolerate face down on  on the glass of a flatbed scanner. If you are not familiar with this process you can have a someone do it for you or hire someone like a print company. Just make sure that whoever you choose is experienced with handling fine art! I have heard horror stories! Request your files on disc be set to 300 DPI in a TIFF format. (More on this later)

Photography: Photography is the method you will want if you work in soft pastels, sculpture or any other medium not suited for flatbed scanning. This is also a trickier method to get right! For this reason, if you are not a professional photographer, I suggest you hire one. Once again, make sure the photographer you hire is experienced with photographing artwork! Just because your friend takes fantastic portraits does NOT mean they know how to shoot artwork properly. If you care to tackle this on your own, there are a gazillion websites with how-to steps on photographing your work. Go for it!

Regardless of the method you choose, remember this: The quality of the final print is directly related to the quality of the digital file! In other words, garbage in = garbage out. Do your homework and find out what your options are locally. Shipping art is expensive and you run the risk of damage or worse, never getting your originals back. (Yes. I have heard of that happening.) Local is always the best option. It gives you more control over the process and helps the local economy.

Digital File Manipulation

I mentioned before that you need a 300 DPI, TIFF file for printing purposes. This is the print industry standard. However, today’s technology (POD) has figured out ways to print from lower resolution files. My advice is to stick to industry standards. The only time a lesser file size is warranted is the file size limits placed on POD for file upload.

300 DPI (resolution) – This is the ideal size for printing, no matter what printing method you choose. If you decide to use POD for your prints, you will have more print size options than a lower resolution. If you go with the traditional offset press method, 300 DPI is required. And don’t even think that a higher resolution will mean better quality. It doesn’t. In fact, anything higher than 300 DPI is a complete waste since the printing process doesn’t recognize anything higher than 300. A higher resolution just makes your file larger and harder to work with.

*If you choose a POD website and there is a limit to file size for upload, you can contact them via email for information on how to send your digital files to them as is, or how to reduce the file size to work for their needs.

Digital File Format – Industry standard uses TIFF files for printing purposes because TIFF files retain more information than JPEG and TIFFs do not lose  information with repeated saves. In my experience, the standard file format for POD is JPEG. There are technical reasons for this, but lets just leave it at process requirements.

Color Correction – This is the area that requires experience and a really good computer and computer monitor because your main goal is to get the digital file as close to the original art as possible. Color correction basics can be done with any computer, but if you are a stickler for color matching you will need a calibrated monitor and a higher level of experience. Be sure to find a good graphics person with color experience to hire for this.

Choosing a Print Method

Printing at Home – To print at home you will need more than a basic understanding of the things we have already talked about plus a decent printer (not an all-in-one) that takes archival inks and papers. Many photographers I know do their own printing and some artists as well. I have done this in the past, but I prefer to spend more time creating art than creating prints, so I use the Print on Demand option.

Print on Demand (POD) – Print on Demand has become the most popular option for many artists, mainly because it is less expensive than traditional (offset) printing. All you need is your digital art file and a computer. Upload your images based on their file requirements and you can order as few as one print at a time. Many POD sites also have subscription options which include an artist website and other benefits. A few of them are Imagekind, Redbubble, DeviantArt and Fine Art America. Each site has a specialty and different technological requirements. Check out the sites and choose the one that best fits you and your artistic style.

I have used Imagekind for prints in the past, but now use Fine Art America. I do not have my website through them, I only order prints. For note cards I use a local print company and Vistaprint. Vistaprint’s prices on note cards have come down and are now more competitive, but their quality is not where I am comfortable. Fine Art America has good quality note cards, but are to expensive for my retail prices. You will need to do the research and choose the options that fit your budget and quality requirements.

Offset Printing – Offset Printing is the traditional method of creating prints. This requires a high run, or number of prints, to be made at one time. It is also limited to printing in CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow and black) which limits the color options. It is possible to add spot colors to the run, but this adds to the price as well. It has been my experience that my bright blues in my original dulled considerably and I have seen this with all of the very bright colors. Because of the considerable expense and limited color palette, offset printing has fallen out of favor. It is still a good option for some artists, especially those with a retail outlet that sells in volume.

This is a lot to take in and believe it or not, this is just an overview of what is involved on the technical side. I have spent the last 20+ years as a freelance artist and 14 of those years in Graphic Design. I have seen a lot of changes due to the progression of technology and I am sure there will be more changes in the future. One thing that has not changed, is that people who are not in the graphics field expect miracles from those of us who work in it. The standards set by the industry are set for a reason. That reason is the equipment that we work with. No matter how talented a designer may be, they are limited by the technology being worked with and the files provided. This is why the scan or the photograph or your art is so important! The basis for a good print depends on that very first step.

I hope this has helped you understand the basics of creating your prints. If you have links or information to add, by all means feel free to comment!

Until next time…happy creating!

All images are copyright protected, and may not be reproduced, copied, edited, published, transmitted, or downloaded in any way without my written permission. All artwork in this gallery is the original artwork of Odessa Kelley. All Rights Reserved.