How to Make Prints of Your Art: A Complete Printing Guide (2023)

How to make prints of your art header image. Showing prints of various sizes

If you want to make money as a professional artist you must ‘scale’ your art business. That means you must learn how to make prints of your art. But how do artists do it?

Most artists choose to make art prints in one of 4 ways:

  1. Offset Lithographic printing – Bulk buying from a company using a printing press.
  2. Giclée printing – Small runs from a company using digital printers
  3. Giclée printing – DIY at home using a pro-printer
  4. Dropshipping – Individual prints ordered online and dispatched for you.

These are your choices, but there’s far more to it than that. Each type of printing has its pros and cons and making a mistake can cost you a lot of money.

You have to know all about scanning, how to find a local printer, and choosing the right fine art paper. Do you outsource the work or do it all yourself? Where do you even start?

It’s a minefield for the unwary. If you don’t know what you’re doing you need to read this!

Let’s go into more detail.

(I get commissions for purchases made through affiliate links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

Making Offset Lithographic Prints Through a Print Company

What Are Offset Lithographic Prints?

Offset litho prints are made using a zinc-coated plate, photo-etched with the artist’s image, upon which ink is applied and pressed against the paper.

That’s the simplest summary, but of course, there is far more to it. Reproducing original artwork is a skilled job and a specialist printing company is required to make fine art prints.

The Advantages of Offset Litho’ Art Printing

  • Primarily the Cost. This is bulk printing,
  • Cheapest unit price per print,
  • Proven ‘old school’ method for making quality prints of your artwork

The Disadvantages of Offset Litho’ Art Printing

  • Ironically cost. To gain savings you must invest heavily upfront,
  • Finding a reliable professional printer is hard work,
  • You need dry storage space for thousands of prints,
  • It’s a risk. If your prints don’t sell, you’re screwed,
  • Inconsistent quality.
  • Each print size needs a new plate made,
  • Fine art offset litho’ is losing out to digital printing.

How Do Artists Find a Good Printing Company?

The best place to start looking is in the small ads in art magazines. Use only reputable companies

You’ll notice that most companies will be members of a guild or a trading body and that should guarantee a professional service. It’s the first thing I look for.

Google their sites and take a look at them and their competitors. Then try and find the company nearest to where you live.

In my experience the closer you live/work to your print shop the better it is for everyone.If there is a glitch or a question to be answered, it’s best to be there in person. It’s the easiest way to get a good job done.

NB: Don’t be suckered into accepting the lowest quote, printershops are not all equal. For artists, general printers are next to useless.

I got stitched up by a few companies when I started to trade. Looking back, my mistake was to fret about the cost per print, ordering too many, and dealing with larger firms.

My salvation was finding a two-man printshop, both highly skilled tradesmen and they did all the printing themselves. This worked.

It succeeded because as a small business, my custom mattered. We were able to chat and form a lasting relationship.

All based on a handshake, integrity, and customer service.

That was in stark contrast to dealing with larger companies where I was little more than small-fry spending peanuts and not worth their time.

I interrupt this article to shamelessly plug my own book!

Making Giclée Prints Using a Print Company

It is now possible to get your art printed, one at a time, to the highest standards. It’s a very appealing solution for artists who have no time or desire to print at home.

Like all the options discussed here, there are pros and cons, but before I go further let me clarify what is meant by Giclee.

What is a Giclée Print?

Put simply, giclee prints (from French and pronounced zhee-clay) are digital inkjet prints made using long-lasting pigment-based inks and reproduced on acid-free, cotton rag paper.

Giclee prints are generally regarded as the best quality prints and have become the industry norm for high-quality fine art reproductions. Dye-based inkjet printers are, perhaps unfairly at times, considered inferior.

How Long Do Giclee Prints Last?

The leading manufacturers, Epson and Canon both claim their pigment inks are lightfast for a lifetime (about 100 years). Of course, unlike offset-litho, the industry is young and their claims have not had time to be field-tested. All the test results are extrapolations based on lab tests.

Prints will deteriorate at different rates according to the local conditions and your chosen paper or substrate. There is no definitive industry standard by which to measure and test the longevity of inks.

If you desire permanence, use pigment inks. If the color range (gamut) and quality are more important, dye-based inks still outperform pigment inks. It’s a trade-off.

You should use pigment inks for high-quality prints, and dye-based inks for ephemera, such as greeting cards, and promotional materials.

To get the most reliable results only use inks and high-quality paper, known to have been tested together such as the manufacturer’s own product range.

The Advantages of Printing Giclee Art Prints Through a Company

  • Low risk – great for short-run editions with high price points,
  • Consistent quality of the print,
  • Re-order prints at will, and as many or as few as you like,
  • Print multiple sizes at no extra setup costs.
  • Prints can be very big (large format inkjet printer)

The Disadvantages of Printing Giclee Art Prints Through a Company

  • The costs per print range from very high to extortionate,
  • Printers are only as good as the maintenance of the equipment they use,
  • Finding a good and reliable commercial printing company is hard,
  • The prints are easily scratched and marked.

Making Art Prints at Home With Your Own Giclee Printer

It’s not for everyone, but home printing is increasingly being used by professional artists. Home printing is now a practical option and should be given serious consideration.

This is hands-on stuff that gives you both the control and the frustrations of doing everything yourself. It means less time creating art, but that’s not always a bad thing. Having a variety of tasks can stop you from going stale.

You have two major things to consider involving printing inks.

Dye vs Pigment-Based Printing Inks: What’s the Difference?

In a nutshell, Dye inks have a shorter lifespan and are not considered archival. They are suitable for cheap prints and ephemera.
Pigment inks, on the other hand, are archival and designed to last a lifetime. They are used for fine art reproductions being sold at a premium. Giclee prints are pigment ink-based prints.

N.B. The Epson ET 8500 is a smaller version printing 8.5″ x 14″ / 21.6 x 35.6 cm prints

The Advantages of Home Dye-Based Printers

  • The inks are not so much money. The cost per print is low
  • The initial cost of the printer is (usually) cheaper,
  • The Colors are More vibrant,
  • Print speeds are usually faster,
  • Disposable prints are viable. (Greeting cards etc),
  • Quality 3rd party inks and papers are widely available.
  • You can afford to run more test prints

The Disadvantages of Home Dye-Based Printers

  • The lifespan of the inks is shorter. Inks might fade,
  • Not suitable for premium-priced art prints,
  • Generally not as good for black and white printing,
  • Initial setup is a learning curve,
  • You can’t print from a roll.
  • You need space to use it.

It’s extremely hard to find running cost information about printers. It would be handy to know the average cost to print A3, A4, or A5 prints, etc, but it’s not published by the manufacturers. However, the unit costs for printing dye-based digital prints will be pennies, so in that regard, it’s good news.

The price is not important with these types of digital prints.

It is much more important to know how much it costs to make a Giclee (pigment ink) print. I scoured the web and only found one site that publishes a guide. I’ve republished their results below with a conversion for British buyers.

N.B. The Epson SC-P900 is the larger version making prints up to 17″ x 22″ / 43 x 56cm

The Advantages of Giclee Art Printing at Home

  • Keep control of everything,
  • Print the type of art you want, when you want,
  • Desktop printers (up to A3+) are affordable,
  • Less storage space is needed,
  • Make prints of different sizes and on different products.
  • Some third-party inks claim to be as permanent for a fraction of the cost,
  • You can print on a roll.

The Disadvantages of Giclee Art Printing at Home

  • Home printing involves a huge learning curve and upfront costs,
  • Maintenance of home equipment is vital and ongoing,
  • Repairs cost a fortune,
  • Branded inks are very expensive,
  • Branded paper costs are high.
  • The cost per print is still high
  • You need a lot of space
  • Prints are easily damaged
Epson SC-P7004″ x 6″5″ x 7″8″ x 10″11″ x 14″13″ x 19″
Photo Black$0.39
Matte Black$0.36

I’ve written about this in more detail here, after researching printers for myself:
Printing Art Prints DIY Epson ET 8550 vs SC-P700 – Hobby vs Pro?

Print-on-Demand Dropshipping

What is Dropshipping and How Does it Work for Artists?

Dropshipping is when a third party fulfills and despatches an order on your behalf. You act as the merchant, or middleman, and add your markup above the base price.

You upload high-resolution digital files of your artwork to their platform and add them to their products.

Some companies will integrate with your own website and that gives you more control. You should always aim to have access to your customer base and their email addresses where you can.

I use because it has higher standards than most in the POD industry. It integrates with both my own website and my Etsy shop. It’s a little bit more expensive than the other online POD sites, but I think the higher price is worth it.

Unisex printful t-shirt on a hanger

I highly recommend reading these posts:

Three print-on-demand companies that integrate with your own eCommerce shop:

There are many more dropshipping options, but most of the major players require you to sell via their own marketplace platforms. That’s fine, there are advantages to setting up an online art store for a passive income. As long as you remember the limitations.

I follow Ryan Hogue on Youtube. He is a great communicator and knows his subject very well.

You don’t have access to the customers. That’s a big drawback for repeat trade and online sales.

Alternative Print-on-Demand companies that provide an online marketplace include:

And now this exciting company has entered the market. Teemill brands itself as a sustainable print-on-demand clothing company.

This is what Teemill says:

  • First working Circular Economy for fashion
  • Remill tech means old material is recovered and remade
  • All garments made from GOTS certified organic cotton
  • Sustainable packaging is made from plants, not plastic
  • Carbon Neutral website and t-shirt printing factories powered by renewable energy
  • Print-to-order tech means zero waste and you can build an online store without inventory
  • Monthly tree planting and plastic recovery initiatives that your brand can get involved with

The artist signs up for free, opens a store, uploads their designs, chooses their products, and starts selling online as an independent drop shipper. There is no additional cost. If you want to promote sustainability it could be the better way. It’s worth checking out!

And lastly, check out my post on Society6: Sell Art on Society6 Step-by-Step in 2023

The Advantages of Print-on-Demand For Artists

  • Almost zero cost to set things up
  • Ease of use
  • A vast range of merchandise, including wall art
  • No stock, storage, or postage hassles
  • Can be a passive model (side income)
  • You can spread your work over many sites
  • The best option for graphic designers
  • Great way to sell digital art

The Disadvantages of Print-on-Demand For Artists

  • Time-consuming setting things up
  • No real quality control
  • Small profit margin
  • Not practical for signed limited editions
  • Difficult to stand out in the crowd
  • Hard to make good money without great marketing

Making Hi-Res Scans of Your Artwork For Printing

You must get the highest quality scan of your original work as possible. This is critical.

There are 4 scanning alternatives:

  • A drum scanner – For super hi-res results which can be enlarged. Suitable for flexible materials only (i.e. paper).
  • A professional flatbed scanner – For hi-res reproductions for same-size images or smaller.
  • A professional photography service – A studio photograph for large or bulky artwork
  • DIY at home with the best domestic scanners

Drum Scanning

You get the best results. Your art is attached to a drum that rotates at high speed and is scanned in super hi-res detail. Far higher overall quality than most artists require.

If you wish to enlarge the whole, or parts of the image, this type of scanning will give you excellent results.

One word of caution. Your original paintings need to be flexible because they will be spinning at about 2000 rpm! Do you trust the operator?

Commercial Flatbed Scanning

The best flatbed scanners give superb results and are probably the best option for most artists.

You can scan images up to A3 (420 x 297mm /11.69 x 16.53 inches) without a problem and the professional processing cuts out all the headaches.

DIY Home Scanning

If you are keen to keep things in-house and scan your own artwork, a stand-alone high-end scanner may be a practical choice. You will need some post-scanning processing skills (usually Adobe Photoshop), there is more to it than pressing the scan button, but the results can be impressive.

Size is the problem. If your artwork is no larger than A4 (8.27 x 11.69 inches / 21 x 29.7cm) you’re all set. If your art is larger, however, you’ll have to stitch your scans together with software. I recommend the Epson v600 scanner if you want to check it out.

Epson V600 Home Scanner

Photographing Your Artwork

For anything over A3 in size, or bulky, textured, or impasto paintwork, your choice is to get it professionally photographed. You can do it yourself if you have a good digital camera and a space to use a studio, but honestly, it might be more hassle than it’s worth.

If you are determined to do it yourself follow this video but you’ll need an SLR camera with a prime lens. Ignore the last instruction in the video. You should photograph artwork in RAW format.

N.B. If you edit the image yourself you will also have to calibrate your computer monitor to get an accurate image. Did I say it’s more hassle than it’s worth?

Look for a photographer with plenty of experience working with art and artists, who will do the whole thing for you. If possible ask to sit in while the digital image is being edited. It’s amazing how many times miscommunications occur, especially at the processing stage.

Things to check :

  • Save your files as a TIFF file type
  • Use no presets. Any processing must be done after the scan
  • The printing trade needs CMYK color format
  • You need a resolution of 300dpi (industry standard) or above

Surprisingly, there are very few courses helping with this common issue but I found this one on Udemy

How Do Artists Approach a Printing Company?

You’ve done your research, asked around, searched online, scoured the small ads in specialist magazines and you’ve decided on a printer. Let’s face it, it’s a calculated gamble.

You ring up and agree on a time to pop over.

Handing Over Your Artwork to a Printer

In my experience, very few employees have any respect for your work. I’m not talking about the quality, I’m talking about the handling.

You can gain a lot of insight in the first few moments of producing your art,

Very few people handle your art properly and if they can’t even pick up an original piece of art with two hands in front of you how are they going to treat your art when you’ve gone?

You must be aware that your artwork is likely to be damaged unless you take precautions to prevent it.

Look out for these things:

  • Thumb buckles and kinks in the paper.
  • Fingerprints
  • Damaged corners
  • Smudges
  • Creases

Another common horror is to see your work placed on a surface, only to have something else casually placed on top of it! That happens regularly.

I never hand over an unsupported sheet of paper anymore. I attach a cardboard backing with acid-free, low-tack, masking tape.

If shit happens and your art is damaged, read this: How to Repair Drawing Paper: 9 Ways to Rescue Your Artwork

I write instructions, stating clearly, how to handle the artwork and how much the original is worth.

I also insert my original into a clear plastic sleeve to prevent accidental fingerprints, splashes, and idiots resting stuff on the surface.

I also carry my work in a portfolio case and leave it with them. It’s better to bring something with you and know the work is safe than to trust the printer to do it for you.

Paper swatch samples to choose before printing
Paper swatch

Choosing the Right Paper for Printing

Your art will look different, on different papers. Some papers absorb the ink, which softens the image, while other papers are coated, making the image crisper.

Your preference will be influenced by your original artwork. If you are scanning a watercolor it makes sense to choose a watercolor paper. If you have a line drawing it may be wiser to have a sharper image so a coated paper would make more sense.

The problem comes with deciding which paper stock to use for your test print (artist’s proof). If you insist on multiple proofs the price can add up.

When in doubt, go for the nearest match to your original paper, both in tone and texture.

Only you can determine the type of prints and quality you’re looking for; are you going to make limited edition prints or open editions?

If you’re making limited editions then choose a good quality, premium, acid-free archival paper, and charge more.

If you’re selling open editions for a lower price, it makes more sense to economize with cheaper paper stock.

The weight of your paper stock is also important. It’s expressed as grams per square meter (gsm) in Europe and pounds (lb) in North America.

To give you some idea, a sheet of photocopy paper is about 80gsm, while posters and leaflets are printed on 130-170gsm. Quality magazines and brochures are 200 – 250gsm. From this point onwards, the paper is more like a light card.

I use 250 – 300gsm paper. The feel is substantial, When I show my potential customers the quality of the physical prints, they can feel the spring in the paper.

I don’t want my paper any thicker for one very practical reason. I need to roll my prints and post them in tubes. Any thicker than 300gsm and that gets tricky.

I can roll most 250gsm papers into a 65mm (2.5″) diameter tube and most 300gsm paper into 75mm (3″) tubes.

Please bear in mind that paper weights are not set in stone. The structure differs between types of paper and this means some papers roll better than others.

You’ve got to see and feel some physical prints in your hands to really know what they’re like.

If you freak out at the cost of framing, let El Pez Enmarcado teach you how to do it yourself. Her Domestika course has 14 lessons covering 2h 54m. She has over 20,000 students

Link to her video on Domestika
(This is a Spanish-speaking course subtitled in English)

Another consideration is the tint. White is not white. You didn’t think this would be easy, did you?

When presented with a paper swatch you will encounter a range of whites from dazzling snow-white to a dull cream. Naturally, your chosen tint will alter the image.

My paper is slightly off-white. It lends itself to black and white illustration. It lends warmth to the image that otherwise might look too cold for the home.

A brilliant white paper will give your image a zing and enhance the color but be careful. Many papers contain optical brighteners which turn yellow over time. Check the specifications online before you commit.

One last thing to bear in mind. I’ve had great papers in the past only to have the paper mill suddenly discontinue the line. This has happened many times in the 20 years I’ve been trading and it throws me every time.

You might want to play safe and use branded paper. Your printer should advise you.

Artists printing proofs, one light, one dark, one perfect.
Proofs are your only ‘guarantee’

What is an Artist’s Proof?

The printer will supply you with a proof copy of your work to approve or reject. They will provide you with the best quality print they can but it’s up to you to sign it off.

Some printers will charge extra for adjustments and it’s important to establish the extra costs upfront. You need to know how many proofs are included in the price.

My printer (offset litho) sends me three proofs. The one that most closely matches the original, one lighter and one darker.

Now you’d think that I would always go with the nearest match but not always. I often choose a slightly darker print for better results. This is because the reflective light from an original can differ from a print.

My work is in graphite and the sheen gives a depth that is not always apparent in the print. One-stop darker is usually enough to compensate for that anomaly.

Offset litho is not as accurate as giclee in practice. That’s one of the drawbacks. You will not get 100% identical prints throughout the print run. Some will be slightly too dark and others too light.

You will have to discard the extremes and settle for the best prints in the middle band. Even then, you must allow for a 10% margin of acceptable error. That’s the shop-floor reality.

A proof for giclee printing is more straightforward. When you have agreed on the proof it should be the best high quality print and identical every time you reorder.

A proof should act as a binding contract but in my experience this is seldom so. Sadly many printers have little time for artists ‘picking holes’. This is why you MUST use a specialist printing company, one that deals with artists daily.

A Limited Edition Print from a Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler. A white tiger swimming with reflections
‘Cool Waters’ A Limited Edition Print from a Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

Before you sign off the proof check the image thoroughly:

  • Have they cropped it badly?
  • Is your signature still there?
  • Do you want a thin borderline around the image or not?
  • Is the font correct?
  • Is the font too light or too dark?
  • Check the spelling
  • Check the spacing
  • Is the image centered on the paper?
  • Have they ‘cleaned’ the background properly (specks, unwanted texture)
  • Check the color, contrast, and tint.

You can’t give the thumbs up and then complain that something’s wrong after you receive the prints. If you approved it, it’s your fault.

If you do want to print a title and/or a borderline, don’t choose black. It’s a good idea to tone it down to about 60%. Grey is softer on the eye and will look better.

And get the file. You need it. Make sure you get the raw scan, the modified Tiff file, and a PDF. Do not assume your company will safeguard your files for you.

I’ve had businesses not keep good records, go bust, and I lost some files in a fire. If I hadn’t insisted on having a backup copy of every file, I would have lost a lot of my work.

Getting The Printing Job Done

You’ve accepted the quote, approved the proof, and given the thumbs up. Woohoo!

If your printing company is local, take your original home as soon as they have finished with it. Don’t trust them to look after it properly. Better to play safe.

Picking Up Your Giclee Prints

If you have ordered giclee prints, there will be only a few prints to examine. You can collect them yourself. Bring the proof and see that they match.

Giclee prints are the most reliable and they are unlikely to go wrong but even so, there are some things to look out for:

  • Has the ink streaked?
  • Inkspots
  • Paper blemishes
  • Finger marks
  • Scratches

Giclee prints are easily damaged. Make sure you treat them as kindly as an original. Keep your hands off the surface.

Picking Up Your Offset-Litho’ Prints

If you’ve ordered offset litho prints you should be more diligent.

There will be too many prints to check each one, and your printer will always put the best images at the top of the pile.

Check the rest at random. Go through the pile and select a few. There will be a slight variation but this should be within the 10% leeway. You will have a few rejects, it’s inevitable when you order a large batch, but don’t get too worked up about that. Factor it in.

My current printer always prints another 10% beyond my original order to cover for any defective prints that got through.

I learned about the importance of checking my prints the hard way. When I first started out, I put my trust in everyone to have my best interests at heart, that was naive.

I had 12 stacks of prints, each containing 1000 copies, and with that number of prints, I only checked the top few in each pile. I happily signed them off and arranged the delivery.

I was at home when I discovered the junk hidden in the middle. I lost a chunk of my order, but that never happened again.

How to Make Prints of Your Art: Final Thoughts

Printing Art is a minefield but if you get it right it can be your springboard to success.

For us independent artists, the only way to capitalize on our efforts is to scale up with reproductions. Musicians must sell their recordings, writers must sell their books, and artists must sell their prints. There’s no difference.

And just like the other arts, there are pitfalls and obstacles everywhere. You will make mistakes and lose some money trying to get things done properly. If your eyes are open and you can accept that things rarely go smoothly, you’ll be fine.

If you are selling prints as a professional artist, you’re an entrepreneur, and as such, your mindset must be reset to succeed. If you encounter a problem, you find a way around it. It’s an obstacle, not a defeat.

And with that in mind…

Why not take the bull by the horns and go for it?

Selling your art prints is the next step. Selling your art is a business and this course on Udemy will help you get to grips with sales

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

No one said business was easy and that’s why you need a guide. I’ll show you how to do everything. This is the help I needed 20 years ago!

If You Want to Sell Your Art

Check this out!

Psst…it’s only $12.99!

If you found this article useful you may like these too:

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The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, my name’s Kevin and I’m a real person!
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy