How to Make Prints of Your Art if You Don’t Know What You’re Doing

How to make prints of your art header image. Showing prints of various sizes
Making money, means making prints

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

Most artists choose one of 4 ways:

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

They are the choices, but there’s far more to it than that. Each option has its pros and cons and making a mistake can cost you a lot of money. You have to know about scanning, how to approach a printing company, choosing the right paper, and examine the proofs properly. It’s a minefield for the unwary.

If you don’t know what you’re doing let’s go into more detail.

Making Offset-Lithographic Prints of Your Art

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 art is a skilled job and a specialist printing company is required.

The advantages of offset-litho’ printing?

  • Primarily the Cost. This is bulk printing,
  • Cheapest unit price per print,
  • Proven ‘old school’ method for lightfast reproductions.

The disadvantages of Offset-Litho’

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

How do you find a good printing house?

Start by looking at the small ad’s in the art magazines and use those companies as your starting point.

You’ll notice that most companies will be members of a guild or trading body that assures a professional service.

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

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

NB: Don’t be suckered into accepting the lowest quote, printers are not all made 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 and integrity.

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.

Making Commercial Giclee Prints of Your Art

What are Giclee Prints?

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 or rag paper.

Giclee prints are generally regarded as the industry norm for fine art reproduction. Dye-based inkjet printers are, perhaps unfairly at times, considered inferior.

A portrait of a Bald Eagle. A framed offset litho print from a drawing by Kevin Hayler
‘Eagle Eyes’ A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

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 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 out-perform pigment inks. It’s a trade-off.

You would use pigment inks for fine art reproductions and dye-based inks for ephemera such as greetings cards, and promotional materials.

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

The Advantages of Commercial Giclee Prints

  • Low risk – great for short-run editions with a high price-point,
  • Consistent quality,
  • Re-order 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)

The Disadvantages of Commercial Giclee Prints

  • 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 Giclee Prints of your Art at Home

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

How to make prints of your art using an Epson Surecolor P600 Home Printer. A printer in action
Epson Surecolor P600 Giclee A3+ Home Printer

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

The Advantages of Giclee Printing at Home

  • Keep control of everything,
  • Print what you want, when you want,
  • Desktop printers (up to A3+) are affordable,
  • Less storage space 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

The Disadvantages of Giclee 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

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.

You upload hi-res files of your artwork to their site and add them to their custom products. Some companies will integrate with your own website and that gives you more control. You should always aim to have access to your customers’ email.

A mother and baby orangutan. A framed offset lithographic print from a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
‘Baby on Board’ A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler

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

There are many more dropshipping options but most companies require you to sell via their own platforms. That’s fine but they’re not your customers and that’s not good for repeat trade.

The Advantages of Print-on-Demand

  • Almost zero cost to set things up
  • Vast range of merchandise
  • No stock, storage or postage hassles
  • Can be a passive model (side income)
  • You can spread your work over many sites

The Disadvantages of Print-on-Demand

  • Time-consuming setting things up
  • No real quality control
  • Small margins
  • 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

You must get the highest quality scan possible. This is critical.

There are 4 alternatives:

  • A drum scanner – For super hi-res results which can be enlarged. Only for flexible materials (i.e. paper) not rigid.
  • A professional flatbed scanner – For hi-res reproductions for same-size images or smaller.
  • A professional photo service – A studio photograph for large or bulky artwork
  • DIY at home with the best domestic scanners

Drum Scanning

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

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

One word of caution. Your artwork needs to be flexible and will be spinning at about 2000 rpm, do you trust the operator?

Commercial Flatbed Scanning

The best flatbed scanners give superb results and are easily good enough 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, a stand-alone high-end scanner may be a practical choice. You will need some post scanning processing skills 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) your all set. If your art is larger, however, you’ll have to stitch your scans together with software.

Photography

For anything over A3, bulky work, textured or impasto paintwork, your choice is to get it professionally photographed. You can do it yourself if you have a good camera and a space to use a studio but honestly, it’s 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 and shoot the image 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 dedicated artwork photographer with plenty of experience who will do the whole thing for you. If possible ask to sit in while the file is being edited. It’s amazing how many times miscommunications occur, especially at the processing stage.

Things to check :

  • Save your files as TIFFs
  • 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

How do You 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 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 paper with two hands in front of you how are they going to treat your work when you’ve gone?

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

Things that can happen:

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

I write instructions on how to handle the artwork and how much the original is worth.

I also insert it 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 you and knowing the work is safe than trusting the printer to do it for you.

Paper swatch samples to choose before printing
Paper swatch

Choosing the Right Printing Paper

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

Your preference will be influenced by your original. 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 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 quality.

Are you going to make limited or open editions? If you’re making limited editions then choose a 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 stock.

The weight of your paper stock is also important. It’s expressed as grammes per square meter (gsm) in Europe and in 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. At this point onwards, the paper is more like a light card.

I use 250 – 300gsm paper. The feel is substantial, When I show my customer the quality of the paper 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 samples.

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 a warmth to the image that otherwise might look too cold for the home.

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 a number of times in the 20 years I’ve been trading and it throws me every time.

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

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

The Artist’s Proof

The printer will supply you with a proof copy of your work to approve or reject. Some printers will charge extra for adjustments and it’s important to establish the 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. 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. Some will be slightly too dark and others too light.

You will have to discard the extremes and settle for 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 straight forward. When you have agreed on the proof it should be 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 on a daily basis.

A giant panda bear rolling on it's back eating bamboo. An offset litho limited edition print from a pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
‘Laid-Back Bear’ 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. 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 lost some files in a fire. If I hadn’t insisted on every file I would have lost alot 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 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 Litho’ Prints

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

There will be too many prints to check each and every 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 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.

Conclusion

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

For us mortals, the only way to capitalize on our efforts is to scale up with reproductions. A musician must sell their recordings, a writer must sell their books, and the artist 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 intent on selling your art for a living 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?


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