I finally found the time to sit down and revise my tutorial on producing your own art prints in-house. In this tutorial, we'll be covering the basic tools and settings you'll need to get the most out of your Epson printer. Why only Epson you ask? Because I use Epson exclusively in my workflow and have been since 2003. I'm sure there are great alternatives from Canon and HP, but I don't have any experience with their drivers or functionality to give you accurate insight.
Some of the topics I'll be covering are:
- File prep
- Paper selection and paper profiles
- Print settings
- My tools (weapons) of choice
- Print packaging resources
I won't be covering monitor calibration or the ins and outs of printer tech for a couple reasons. For one, I don't use a properly calibrated monitor (I'm using the standard sRGB IEC61966-2.1 profile on my 27" Cintiq) and two, I honestly don't know how printers do the things they do (magic?). I just know what has worked for me and I hope to pass on that knowledge to you. Again, this is a beginner's guide, a foundation more-or-less to get you pointed in the right direction.
Now that's out of the way, let's begin!
Part I. - The printer
For the past eight years I have been using an Epson 3880 which sadly, is now discontinued. It has been replaced by the shiny new Epson SC-P800. A good friend of mine, Matt Kaufenberg, purchased one recently and we've walked through the settings together and they are very similar with the exception of how the manual paper feed functions (from the front rather than the rear).
There are plenty of reviews online for the P800, but none from the perspective of an illustrator or graphic designer. Matt's print offerings in his store were all produced on a P800 using my simple set up instructions.
I've seen the prints in person and they're stellar.
So while I don't own one personally, if you're in the market for a professional printer with a small footprint that can handle up to 17" wide sheets, then the P800 is for you.
Part II. - "Before you print" checklist
Before we get to the printing part of the process, you need to make sure to have a few things in order.
1. A high resolution source image
This one might sound silly, but it needs to be covered. A high quality image yields a high quality print. If you're working in Photoshop, make sure your file is 300dpi. A higher DPI doesn't mean more detail in the final output, so don't worry about working in a 600dpi document.
If you're working in a vector based program like Illustrator, you're going to need to import your document into Photoshop at 300dpi for printing.
2. Archival paper manufactured specifically for inkjet printers
To be fair, you can print on paper not intended for inkjet printers, but you won't get the best results, not by a long shot. Even a premium paper manufacturer like French doesn't have paper that's optimized for inkjet usage. I've tried their brightest paper (their Smart White line) as an experiment in the past and even at the highest DPI print setting, there was an overall fuzziness to the final output. The colors didn't pop the same way either.
You have many options when it comes to fine art inkjet paper finishes: Glossy, semi-gloss, lustre, matte, watercolor, metallic, and even pearl coatings. Then you have to consider the weight of the paper you want to use. Heavier papers make for a great first impression with your customers, but once your work is in a frame, paper thickness doesn't really matter that much. You're going to have decide what's best for your product and how you want to present your work.
As a general rule of thumb, matte papers work best for illustration.
Some popular fine art inkjet paper manufacturers include:
Of the three companies listed above, Hahnemuhle's paper offerings are the most robust. I urge you to order a sample packs (when possible) to get a feel for what you might want to use and what's in your budget.
Personally, I use only two types of paper for my print related projects. For any prints requiring a nice, smooth paper with just a little tooth (nearly all my prints), I use Moab Entrada 300gsm Bright White. The 300gsm denotes the weight of the paper. It's also available in a slightly thinner 190gsm. To be clear, thinner doesn't mean "copy paper" thin. 190gsm is still a fantastic weight for art prints. The second paper I use if a print requires some texture is Epson's 340gsm Cold Press watercolor paper - Natural. Like the Entrada paper, the Epson paper comes in both natural and bright white finishes. Natural means it has no optical brighteners in it. In general, if you want the maximum amount of color vibrancy in your output, always pick the brighter paper unless you are looking to achieve a specific tone or effect.
Maybe you need to make a sign for your booth at an upcoming show or you just want to test print an illustration to see it at size? When I don't want to waste my best paper, I use Epson's more affordable Premium Presentation Paper Matte and Ultra Premium Presentation Paper Matte (if I want a slightly thicker stock).
Note: I've linked to itsupplies.com for the different papers I've mentioned above. I personally purchase all my paper from them and have been doing so for over ten years. They used to be inkjetart.com before they were absorbed into itsupplies.com.
3. Download and install the correct ICC profile for the paper you're using.
What is an ICC profile?
An ICC profile is a set of data that characterizes a color input or output device, or a color space, according to standards promulgated by the International Color Consortium (ICC
Basically you want to make sure the color space is matched to the paper you are using. ICC profiles are available to download for free from Moab and Hahnemuhle. Epson profiles are built in to the driver already so installing them is not necessary.
ICC profiles for Moab papers
ICC profiles for Hahnemuhle papers
Moab provides a nice video that illustrates how to install the profiles step-by-step. Use the same process for Hahnemuhle (if that's the paper you are using).
Part III. - File review
1. You will be printing from Photoshop. If you created your piece in Illustrator, make sure you import it into Photoshop at 300dpi.
Photoshop has much more robust color management features than Illustrator. You'll need these options to get the best results from your print. Contrary to what some might think, your image quality will not degrade when you convert from vector to rasterized artwork.
2. Always work in CMYK to prevent disappointment.
As much as you might love neon, that fancy printer you have can't print colors that are outside of the CMYK color spectrum. Save those neon greens and aquas for a screen print or an offset printed piece with spot Pantone colors.
Note: This applies to files created in Adobe Illustrator as well. If you were working in RGB in Illustrator, you will have to convert to CMYK when you import your vector file into Photoshop.
2. Print composition - Margins make a difference
I guess this is less of a "file review" step and more of an "art review" step. Your final print will have a much bigger impact if it is presented professionally. Simple margins can help you reach that goal. Plan your piece accordingly.
3. Activate your inner production artist
Now is the time for all those tedious layout duties.
If your illustration needs a bleed, add your bleeds. If you're ganging up multiple images on a page to maximize your sheet of paper, you'll have to manually create and place crop marks as needed.
Part IV. - Time to print!
Finally, right? Let's do a quick rundown of everything so far:
- High-res, 300dpi, CMYK file with visually pleasing margins?
- Fine art inkjet paper of your choice?
- ICC profiles installed for that paper?
- File prepped with all necessary printer marks and bleeds?
If you answered "yes" to all of these you're ready to go.
1. CMND/CTRL+P your way to Photoshop's print dialog box.
A. Print Settings: Where you're going to select print quality, paper type, paper size, etc
B. Color Handling: Always set this to "Photoshop Manages Colors".
C. Printer Profile: Where you're going to select the ICC profile for the paper you're using
D. Rendering Intent: Relative Colormetric / Black Point Compensation will automatically be checked once the paper's ICC profile has been selected (you want this).
Feel free to play with this setting. You might find a result that like outside relative colormetric. Photoshop gives a brief description of each settings benefits when selected.
E. Corner Crop Marks: Optional. Only if you need them. Make sure this is unchecked if you created your own crop marks manually.
2. Click "Print Settings"
3. Select your paper size
4. Click "Layout" and a new drop down menu will appear
5. Go to "Printer Settings"
A. Media Type: Each paper recommends a different setting. The Moab Entrada Bright suggests Watercolor Radiant White for the media type, but others might be different. I've also had good results with the Enhanced Matte Paper setting coupled with Moab Entrada.
Be aware that some Media Types will be grayed out if a manual feed paper option is not selected.
B. Output Resolution: SuperPhoto 1440 dpi is sufficient. I haven't been able to see the difference between 2880 and 1440. I'm sure under a loupe dot grouping would be tighter, but our eyes aren't magnifying lenses :)
C. High Speed Option:
When High Speed is selected, the print head prints in both directions to speed up printing. When High Speed is turned off, the printer prints in one direction only, which produces the highest quality images.
Since I'm never in a hurry, I always print with High Speed turned OFF.
D. Finest Detail Option: This option does not exist on the new Epson SC-P800 and I have never used it on the 3880. Apparently it's supposed to make vector images sharper, but I can't say whether or not there is a true noticeable difference under regular viewing conditions.
6. Save your settings as presets
Click the Presets button at the top of the dialog box and a drop down menu will appear.
I break it down by: Paper size > Paper Type > Output Resolution > Options (if I want to have variants of settings).
The naming conventions you use should be something that works for you.
7. When you're done, press "Print"
You'll be brought back to Photoshop's print dialog box. Double check all your settings, press "Print" again and you're good to go!
Last Minute Tips
- Figure out what works best for you. You might find some of these settings need to be tweaked to get the best results from your setup.
- Do thumbnail tests. Sometimes I'll add a adjustment layers (levels, hue/saturation, curves, etc) with micro changes to cropped thumbnails of my print if I'm not getting the color or contrast I was hoping for.
- Be prepared to get frustrated. Printers have a reputation for a reason. They have good days and then there are days when you'll want to light it on fire and throw it out the window.
- Printers are like old cars. You'll start learning about all its unique quirks and how to deal with them.
- Your printer will make you superstitious. "The print heads never clog when I repeat 'Come on, Han, old buddy, don't let me down' three times before sending a job to the printer. I swear."
Tools of the trade
I'm old fashioned when it comes to trimming prints. I blame my graphic design schooling for instilling the discipline and patience required for a knife and ruler.
I've tried rotary cutters, but they didn't feel right. They had too many safety guards and I couldn't see what I was doing.
Packaging for prints
I purchase all of packaging from clearbags.com, located in Northern California.
There are two types of bags I recommend, both from their Crystal Clear line:
- Protective closure bags (includes an adhesive strip for sealing work)
- No flap bags (no adhesive strip)
I used to use only protective closure bags, but switched to no flap bags because I don't have to peel off a million adhesive strips during a packaging session. Either will work just fine and it's up to you what you want to do.
If you're interested in backing board, you can also purchase them from Clear Bags. This is board you want to get. You don't need to go fancy with premium boards.