Tips for Printing Digital Paintings at Home

Epsonr1900

You work hours and hours on a digital painting. You render in tons of details, play with the values, and fuss with color until it is just right. You finally get it about perfect. And then you go to print it…

If, for you, this story ends in disaster this article is for you.

Let me start by saying that I am not an expert on this subject. Printing can get complicated and messy, and terms like ICC profiles, color spaces, and monitor calibration can really make your head spin. For the most part, I leave these things for the professional printing arena. In my own work and in this article, I try to keep things simple – creating good quality prints to display, promote, or sell without them looking stupid.




The Problem with Monitors

Monitor

Your print is NEVER going to look exactly like what you see on-screen. You are translating light into pigment, for goodness’ sake.

To add to that, every computer monitor is different. Your painting could very well change colors from one machine to the next. That is a just a fact that digital artists and designers have to deal with, and I myself have learned not to be so picky and unhappy if my artwork doesn’t look “just right” from place to place.

I work on two different computers regularly, and the way they each display colors is noticeably different. Rather than painstakingly adjust each monitor so that they match (which is probably an impossible task anyway) I just remain aware of the difference and keep it in mind as I paint. In fact, this has become quite useful; if I can adjust the image enough so it looks ok on both monitors, I know it will probably look good on just about any monitor, and will likely print better too. If you have the means to view your digital work on multiple monitors, do so.

For printing, there is little to do except learn the quirks of your display and style of painting. This is a trial and error process that you can’t really avoid, but it becomes increasingly easier each time you print. For example, I know my own artwork tends to print very dark, so I lighten all my images before printing. I’ve also learned to paint with brighter colors, which has cut time in the long run while also making my art look better.

Choosing Printers and Ink

Epsonr1900

The most popular brand of printer for artists by far is Epson, especially the “Stylus Photo” models. These printers have long been used by photographers and are known for their high print quality and print endurance. You can get great results from other models and brands too; I happily used a Canon printer for several years. Just research, read reviews, and find a printer that will work within your budget and needs.

The ink in your printer will also affect your print quality in terms of both color and longevity. Printers will come with either dye-based or pigment-based ink. Dyes tend to print brighter; pigments are typically duller, but last longer. Most inkjet printers are dye-based. Some Epson photo printers, however, use pigment-based ink. Recent research and technologies have made the differences between the two types more slim, but be aware of this if you are trying to print bright colors.

Use the Right Paper

Epsonmattepaper

Your paper is one of THE most important factors in determining the quality of the print, probably even more than the type of printer you use. Regular paper or cardstock will not do. You must use “photo” or “fine art” paper. These papers will have a special coating on them that will prevent the ink from soaking through the paper, resulting in brighter colors.

I prefer heavyweight matte photo paper for art prints. Epson makes a good matte paper. I personally use Staples brand paper because it is cheaper, and feels thicker than Epson. If you require something fancier, there are also many “fine art” papers available with different textures, weights, and durability.

Settings and Maintenance

Printsettings

If you regularly have trouble with ugly lines, smudges, or color shifts in your prints, you may have to check your print settings. Make sure the options in your printer software/driver match the quality, type of paper, and color requirements of your print. With my printer for example, I must set it to the highest quality setting and change the media to “Premium Presentation Paper Matte” or else it will print with jagged lines going through the image. Many good pieces of paper were ruined before I discovered this simple fix.

Also run regular maintenance on your printer – clean the heads, align, calibrate, and keep the cartridges full.

Modes: RGB vs. CMYK

Colormode

A digital color image will be in either RGB or CMYK mode. Which should be used when printing at home? RGB.

This might be considered strange logic, as printing and ink are described in terms of CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black). However, desktop inkjet printers are designed to work best with RGB files because that is what the typical consumer is used to. In fact, if you try to print a CMYK image, the results can be waaayyy off. CMYK mode is mostly beneficial for professional printing presses because they use very specific processes and inks that are different than a home inkjet.

When I paint digitally, it’s always in RGB mode. In addition to the advantage of print accuracy, it is easier to work with RGB color on a monitor, the file sizes are smaller, and they display well on the web. I only worry about converting to CMYK later if I’m sending the file to a publisher or commercial press.

Update: You should be aware that specific color profiles can also affect your color accuracy. For example, there are two popular RGB modes: sRGB and Adobe RGB. This article explains their differences well (long story short, sRGB for web, Adobe RGB for print). Personally, I have never paid much attention to this before. After some digging, I figured out that I have been working in sRGB mode all along, which I will probably not change because it is working just fine for me.

I haven’t read all that much about color profiles before writing this article, so I am still unfamiliar with a lot of it. I think most artists can get away using the basic tips in this article (after all, I’ve been getting by without knowledge of color profiles for years), but if you still have issues, this could do the trick.


At the very least, I hope I just saved you from hours of frustration and wasted paper. Still, this is definitely an area I can learn more about. If you have any other tips, experiences, or questions to share, please let me know in the comments.

11 thoughts on “Tips for Printing Digital Paintings at Home

  1. Jared

    Good write up Dani,
    I found a printer on e-bay that just had a clogged printer head. So I picked up a $600 printer for $150 then spent about $100 cleaning it and it works great. To fight the color battle I print up small images about 25% scale till I find the right color. Then I size this up to 50% then 100%. It saves on ink and paper.
    I’ve never used a color calibrator on my monitor but would love to learn more about the different one on the market. I Own two identical monitors and that color still varies a great deal.
    I’ve also never used refilled ink cartridges. I don’t know if anyone has advice good bad or other wise. I trust the ink to be more consistent from the manufacture.

  2. Eric Merced

    Dani,

    Thank you for this article. It’s of much help.

    I’m curious though and want to ask you, when you say you always work in RGB when doing digital paintings, do you work with Proof Color on (Photoshop menu bar View>Proof Colors)? Or do you work in RGB, and then convert to CMYK for the client without Proof color on?

    Much appreciated :)

  3. Lafinman

    When it comes to digital art there’s always controversy on the do’s and do nots.

    CMYK or RGB, Mac or PC, and LCD monitors or CRT monitors. I found experimentation to be the best tool, but I think this clears up a lot of what I found out in the past. Printing my stuff out always looked like it did on the screen. But I was told to use CMYK. I’m an amateur so I never had to make anything for print, but even I know CMYK is the best option for that, but ignored it for my own stuff. Thanks for clearing up on why my stuff looked as it did even though it was RGB

    Plus for you all Manga artists there. A black and white laser printer is the best for printing all those half tone patterns. I’ve tried it once on an Inkjet and got a lot of inconsistence in the patterns, but a b/w laser is made to handle all the little detail. And of course printing 600 dpi documents is a breeze.

  4. Christine Grove

    Hi!
    Just wanted to say I love your site and blog. I can spend forever reading about the topic of illustration and learn so much from your postings. Thanks for taking the time to share such valuable information.

  5. Dani Post author

    Eric – As far as I understand, the Proof Color feature is only a way to preview your work in another mode, and doesn’t really do anything to the file as far as changing its color profile. I don’t really use the feature often, and I keep it turned off while I’m working.

  6. Dead.Pixel

    First off I would like to say that I enjoy your site and work a lot! But reading this article I have to disagree with a few of your points.

    • You should always print CMYK, even at home. Unless your printer is specified as RGB it is using CMY, which can only produce certain colors when mixed. There are RGB printers though that are ideal for photo printing. But in the end most printers, even those at home, are CMYK.

    • When buying a printer don’t think about the initial cost as much as the cost of the ink. A rule of thumb is that the cheaper the printer the more expensive the ink. Companies make the money on the ink, why do you think they just hand printers out on a whim. Another thing to think about is getting a printer that has a cartridge for EACH color. 2 cartridge printers, black and color, will need you to replace the color cartridge if just one well runs out. Just some tips.

    • As for color space I would highly recommend switching to Adobe RGB. Though your monitor is most likely a sRGB (there ARE non sRGB monitors with much better color range) you will still see a difference. You will have a much higher range of colors and in it turn will have more control. Even if someone looks at it in sRGB it will look better. A thing to remember though is that most monitors are sRGB so when you are working in CMYK or Adobe RGB it is being represented as best as possible in the sRGB color space. LAB will give you an even HIGHER range of color.

    Color space diagram: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Colorspace.png (the matte paper is similar to the CMYK color space.

    Again I love your work and site and I really don’t mean to lecture. I hope this helps at all :)

  7. seth capitulo

    i’ve always worried about icc profiles… now i know i can really do without them… thanks a lot…

  8. seth capitulo

    p.s. i’ve just read that it’s better to use tiff for printing; the tiff file is quite heavy and way larger than jpeg but prints are crisper; jpeg is for web use it further says…will try this on my printer…

  9. CalamityJaneDoe

    Dani,

    Thank you very much! This answers a lot of my questions–I had, for a long time, thought I was doing something wrong and felt incompetent as an artist because of this same reason. My prints were always off-color when I printed from home! But with this information, I feel more confident that I’ll be able to find some sort of solution. Thank you again.

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