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
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
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
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
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
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.