Printing Your Art
Thinking about selling or exhibiting prints of your artwork, but not sure where to start? This article covers the difference between printing yourself or outsourcing, with helpful suggestions of printers and printing services.
To print artwork for exhibition purposes or selling online, you need to be able to achieve a quality of output that has a name: “giclée”. The term is based on the French word gicleur, the French technical term for a jet or a nozzle. In short, a giclée print requires an inkjet printer.
This article will discuss suitable printers, but as giclée printers are quite expensive to buy, run, and maintain, it will also cover what you can achieve on a low budget and share some tips for outsourcing. However, you must always go with the highest quality you can afford if only because your art is supposed to make you money and not to ruin your reputation.
Today, giclée is associated with inkjet equipment that uses dye or pigment-based archival inks and archival media, aka substrates. The major vendors that have this equipment in their product portfolio are Canon, Epson and HP. Only printers that can output to A2 media (at least 24 x 20 inches) or bigger will deliver the required quality.
An office printer won’t do, mainly because you cannot properly linearize and color manage it. A photo printer that prints A3 format (or 16 x 12-inch paper) will — if you are willing to compromise on paper size and to some extent on quality too.
In a nutshell, you require:
- the highest output quality you can afford — for example, when the specs mention an ink droplet size of 3.5 picoliter, that’s small enough to ensure a very high resolution.
- the highest print resolution available with the highest number of inks — a 2400 x 1200 dpi resolution, for instance, and the use of six to ten inks.
- inks that guarantee a high lightfastness (the degree at which color ink is unaffected by light over time) and archival quality (permanence).
- a device that can print on a large range of materials, including cotton rag, high-gloss photo paper, satin paper, matte paper, canvas, film, vinyl, textile, etc.
The difference between printing at home and printing professionally
All of the devices in the highest market niche are by definition PostScript-printers and best controlled through a Raster Image Processor (RIP), which is an app that lets you control the way ink is fired from each individual printhead onto the media. That is important because:
- It saves money as you can control the amount of ink sprayed onto the medium
- It increases quality beyond what is possible using the printer driver
- It allows for very accurate color rendition
- With some printers, it enables increasing the length of the printable surface, saving money again.
All of these printers must be calibrated (aka linearization) before creating the color profiles for the media you’re going to use. This is the most important step in the process because it puts the printer in a known and stable state for each specific ink/media combination.
These preparations are inherent to professional printing, no matter the type of printer used by you or the professional you’re outsourcing an output job to.
If you’re starting out or are on a low budget, you’ll probably want to use a photo printer to print your art, it still is a good idea to use a RIP. Only if you’re working from a near-zero budget may you want to go with the printer manufacturer’s printer driver. You’ll have to give in on quality and especially on control, though. That’s fine as long as you are aware of it and won’t use the resulting prints for any important exhibition. It might then be better to have your art printed by a print-on-demand service or even a local printer.
To print artwork, you will ideally be working in the CMYK color space because you cannot rely on the manufacturer’s printer drivers and color profiles to achieve accurate color rendition and full control over the ink on the substrate. This means you will need to invest a bit of money in a good, genuine Raster Image Processor. Pseudo-RIPs exist as well, but these rely on the printer driver and aren’t useful. A relatively inexpensive but decent, user-friendly RIP is EFI’s Fiery RIP, which a large number of vendors use in their high-volume production machines. Other RIPs are usually much more difficult to use than EFI’s Fiery.
The printer you’ll want to buy for exhibition prints is a large format inkjet printer.
The printer/RIP combo will set you back between 1300 and 11,000 US dollars, depending on the size of the output, the resolution and the machine’s capabilities — for, example, some printers incorporate a paper cutter.
Running your own printer implies that you will have to maintain the printer yourself. Setting up a printer in CMYK mode involves linearizing the printer and creating print/color profiles for every different substrate you decide to print on. You will need to repeat that process with each new ink and media batch you buy.
You can often buy or download generic color profiles for the printer/media combination you use, but as every production batch of ink and paper or canvas differs slightly, you will always get somewhat off-color results using those.
When you’re starting, are on a tight budget or still testing the waters, you should keep this in the back of your mind.
For true exhibition quality, you will also need to invest in a spectrophotometer. Currently, the only professional one that is affordable is the X-Rite i1Pro.
If you’re starting out or on a budget, you can do with a Datacolor kit. That won’t deliver the same accuracy as X-Rite’s gear but will be less expensive. If you have money to spare, invest in X-Rite’s i1iO, a robotic, automatic chart reading system designed for photographers, designers and printers who want to eliminate manual strip reading. The i1iO does the job in minutes whereas manual strip reading can be very frustrating and take forever.
If you want to also print your artwork on mugs, apparel and other three-dimensional products, you can buy a heat press (take a look at this Amazon page, for example) but they are unwieldy and tedious to use. For that type of printing, it’s probably better to outsource your work.
Outsourcing the printing process
As a starting artist or when you’re on a tight budget, you might consider outsourcing your printing needs to a print-on-demand (POD) service provider. You don’t have to invest in equipment, you don’t have to learn to manage a professional printer and you still can get good quality for only a slightly higher price per print than when you do it all by yourself. For showcasing your work at important art exhibitions, however, I would advise against POD services as it then becomes really important to control the entire process.
When hiring a POD service, such as Printify and Kyte.li, you supply the files in a print-ready format to the printer’s specifications and they print out your artwork. You can then sell your printed materials online, using a range of e-commerce service providers.
The initial workflow with a POD service is very close to working with a professional printer, which is another alternative if you find one who is knowledgeable and helpful. However, seeking help from a local printer is bound to be more expensive, but, depending on the printer’s willingness, will allow you to instruct the printing press operator during proofing/printing.
Some online art sales services have in-house printing facilities or outsource the printing part themselves. For example, Society6 fulfills, prints, and ships your orders internationally. Not only do they print on sheets of paper, textile and canvas, they also print on 3D objects such as mugs and iPhone cases.
Basic introduction of different printing types
Which types of printers to print artwork are there, anyway?
The large-format inkjet. It uses print heads that contain tiny nozzles. The nozzles, when excited, squirt a microscopically small drop of ink on the substrate. Printers that can handle 24-inch wide substrates are called large-format printers.
Small photo and office inkjet printers are inkjet printers, but they have too few nozzles, no advanced droplet technology and, in general, are not suitable to be controlled by a RIP. They are not very good at printing artwork, except for lower quality prints.
Large photo printers differ from small photo printers in size and quality. As size increases, so does the price of the equipment and it becomes profitable for manufacturers to include more features.
Most UV-curable inkjets again are inkjets, but these are massive industrial printing presses that fix the ink to the medium by “curing” with UV light. They’re excellent for signage, banners and large panels.
A dye-sublimation printer uses solid ink that must be heated before it can be deposited onto a medium. The ink, once dried, has a bit of a wax feel to it and is permanent. These printers can be used for printing on mugs, apparel and metal.
Color laser printers are extremely difficult to color manage and RIPs aren’t available for them. Color toner is neither permanent nor lightfast. Laser printers can only handle paper.
Heat press machines are not printers per se. They are used to apply heat transfers (colored sheets of a synthetic resin or plastic such as vinyl) onto garments, mugs, and glasses using temperature and pressure.
Epson’s A2 model, the SureColor SC-P800, has a minimum ink droplet size of 3.5 picoliter and Variable Droplet Technology that can produce up to three different droplet sizes per print line at a very high resolution.
The HP DesignJet Z9 has a 2400 x 1200 resolution of optimized dpi and uses nine inks (cyan, magenta, yellow, matte black, photo black, chromatic red, chromatic green, chromatic blue and grey) with an option to install a gloss enhancer.
For aspiring artists on a tight budget, Canon’s A3+ Pixma Pro-100S Mk II offers a good printer with a high resolution at 4800 x 1200 dpi, eight colors and ChromaLife100 inks for a price of around 500 dollars. For that price, you’ll also get good ink permanence and the possibility to run the printer with a RIP. Even with a RIP, you won’t be able to print on sizes of media that extends beyond the printer’s specs as you would with other printers, though, but that’s a minor disadvantage.
What to look for in a printing vendor and how to check the quality of a print
Before entrusting a print vendor with your work, you should read some user experiences by googling them and looking up comments on their service. If that is satisfactory, send them a test file, preferably one that will give you an idea about the color accuracy and the quality of line (e.g. jaggies) they can output.
Look for registration errors — that’s when you can see edges with misaligned colors. If there are any, it means either the equipment is badly maintained, old, or the operators don’t know their job. For mugs and other 3D objects, check the ink’s resistance to abrasives, detergents, and scratches.
Making sure your art is print-ready
Output your art to 300 dpi or higher (300dpi is giclée quality), or per the printer’s or POD service’s instructions.
Raster images (JPEG, TIFF, PNG) are made up of pixels and cannot be enlarged without introducing pixelation. Vector art can be resized at will.
If you save your file in vector format, you can export it to a raster file of the exact required size in a format such as TIFF and repeat that for different sizes later — TIFF is what most printers can print.
When printing with a RIP, convert your art to CMYK and check that your conversion settings are correct. You should always check your very first print — the proof — for color accuracy. If you’re using your printer, you’ll need to print a control strip in the margin and check it with your spectrophotometer. You’ll also need to check the ink density, again using your spectrophotometer (or a dedicated density meter).
When working with a POD service or vendor, or with your local print shop, you should color match your artwork using the color profile of the printing device they’ll be using to output your file, then through your software’s color management features correct for color shifts.
Common factors that prevent a file from being print-ready include:
- File in the wrong format.
- Document sized improperly.
- Colors set to the wrong color space; e.g. RGB instead of CMYK.
- Errors involving margins.
- Resolution not high enough.
Where and how to sell art prints
When you’ve successfully printed your artwork, it’s probably time to let it be juried or offer it for sale. You can do both online. Below are some examples in each category.
Sites that offer a full service from printing to selling
Sites that offer merchant and/or POD services
Sites that offer shopping services only
About Erik Vlietinck
Erik Vlietinck became an independent writer and sub-editor 30 years ago, creating high-quality content in English and Dutch. He is familiar with industrial printing, video, and audio production on the Mac platform, as well as graphics design, digital publishing, color management, and more. As a journalist/reviewer, Erik contributes to a number of US- and UK-based publications, while serving Fortune 500 companies and SMEs worldwide as a technical copywriter. He is a keen amateur of pencil drawing and painting with acrylic media and has had some of his artwork exhibited in his native city Antwerp.