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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Archive for August, 2017

Book Printing: Color Shift Problems in the Book Proofs

Monday, August 28th, 2017

Sometimes things go horribly wrong. I think there’s nothing worse than “hearing” the exasperation of a loyal client in her email, knowing that a multi-year working relationship is on the line.

I recently heard back from a client for whom I had been printing a small color swatch book for years. The swatch books pertained to make-up and clothing color choices appropriate for a woman based on her complexion.

The small color books, bound with a screw and post assembly, are essentially PMS books for the fashion industry. I have written many articles about this project, which my client reprints every few months. All 22 original print books had been produced without incident until just recently. They had been direct reprints of between one and ten copies of each of the 22 original master books. The books had been printed, laminated, round cornered, and drilled for the screw and post binding. The book printer produced the color books on an HP Indigo. The color was dead on. Reprints of the print books went like clockwork. Until they didn’t.

The Change in the Job Specs

The change in the job specifications that precipitated the problem was a small one. My client would print 100 copies of the 22 master books (various numbers of copies of each to equal 100 total color books) to fulfill orders for her clients. However, this time, in order to have more colors to bind into some of the print books, my client had created a single sheet containing an additional 30 colors. Some colors matched pages already included in the 22 master copies; many did not.

The goal was to print these at the tail end of the job, once the other books were complete, and then run them through the same finishing operations: lamination, round cornering, drilling, and such, but then to deliver them loosely packed in a carton (not bound on screw and post assemblies). This would cost an additional $200+ instead of the (almost) $3,000 price tag for producing the 15 copies of the single page as a stand-alone job. Why the difference? Because all of the makeready costs that would comprise the almost $3,000 would also cover all of the finishing work for the reprinted 100 copies of the older print books.

But there were problems with the color accuracy—for the first time in the history of the numerous direct reprints. Five of the colors in the 30 extra (master) color chips (the 30 loose chips of which 15 copies would be printed) were already included in the original 22 print books, and the proofs of these colors did not match the colors in the original books.

Fortunately, all the other colors (new ones and colors that had to match the original colors in the 22 master books) were ok.

What Caused the Problems?

Keep in mind that the clock was ticking. My client had clients who wanted books. Their shipments had to be back-ordered. My client also had a new financial backer who understandably also wanted accurate colors.

Fortunately, the sales rep at the printer had a complete set of printed and laminated copies of the original books plus a set of unlaminated proofs of the additional 30 loose color chips. So a list of the five problematic colors gave her a good starting point to resolve the color matching problem.

The sales rep had her plant manager check the HP Indigo color calibration. To be safe, he ran a second set of proofs on a higher-end HP Indigo digital press. He sent second proofs to my client’s financial backer (at my client’s request, assuming the problems had been resolved), but my client’s financial backer said the revised proofs were identical to the first set, with the same five problematic colors still off target (specifically too light). Ouch.

Where Do We Go Next?

Fortunately, since my client sees that the printer is taking this very seriously and trying to make things right, she has given us more time to correct matters. Here are some of the things we have learned and/or have considered relevant to resolving the problem:

  1. The first digital press had been upgraded from a prior model. Apparently, this particular HP Indigo had been altered to improve it, but the color calibration was not yet accurate. This affected primarily the blues, reds, and purples in my client’s color book. That is, the color problems were localized. They did not affect all hues.
  2. When the plant manager moved the job from the first HP Indigo to the larger, higher-end HP Indigo, the problem didn’t go away. Assuming the revised proof was correct (which to his eyes it was), the printer sent the second set of proofs to my client’s financial backer. My client herself didn’t see them. So I asked my client to have her financial backer cut each color swatch in half and send her a complete set of proofs (so both my client and her financial backer, who live in different cities, would each have her own complete set to facilitate communication). Why? Because two people will always see color differently (in this case three, or even more, since the printer also had a set of the same proofs).
  3. I also asked both the book printer and the client (and her financial backer) to look at the colors in different lighting conditions. Why? Because color will look different in sunlight, incandescent light (the traditional light bulbs with filaments), and fluorescent light. Presumably color will also look different under LED light.
  4. I asked everyone to cover each eye (one at a time, back and forth) and check the color. (For some people, including me, colors appear slightly different when they are seen by one eye and then the other.)
  5. I asked the book printer whether any of these colors might be especially problematic when reproduced with cyan, magenta, yellow, and black toners. This is because my client’s financial backer had selected PMS colors, and the HP Indigo simulates PMS colors using process color builds. Granted, extra colors can be used on the HP Indigo (up to seven), and these will expand the overall color gamut, making it possible to match more PMS colors. But not all of them.
  6. The book printer noted that the lamination would darken the colors (some more than others) and make them more intense. This might be perceived as a color shift by either my client or her financial backer. (Keep in mind that color has three properties: 1) hue, or the named color, like “blue”; 2) lightness/darkness, or value; and 3) intensity or purity. Laminating the color chips would affect two of these three variables.) That said, the reason this was a problem is that the proofs were not laminated, but the color pages in the original 22 master print books had been laminated. So if my client or her backer were matching the proofs of the 30 loose color chips (unlaminated proofs) to the master books (laminated pages), the colors would not look alike. In some cases the difference would be minimal, but in other cases—apparently—the color shift would be more dramatic.
  7. The printer also noted that if the five problematic colors were adjusted (by the prepress department) to make them accurate, this would affect all other colors on the 30-color digital press sheet (my client could wind up with five correct colors and 25 colors that were “off,” the opposite of the current situation).
  8. My client told me that she still had the proofs (unlaminated) from the first printing of all 22 master books. I asked her to send these immediately to the printer. He would be able to more easily adjust the colors of the 30 new, loose color chips to match the colors in the original books because he would be matching unlaminated color pages to unlaminated color pages.

This is where we are now. We’ll see what happens.

What You Can Learn from This Fiasco

  1. I always say that when you buy commercial printing, you are not buying a commodity. You’re buying a process. At a time like this, it helps to have a long-term working relationship with the printer. Only a long-term partner will take the time to resolve a problem like this. Keep this in mind as you choose printers for your own work.
  2. Color on laminated, digitally printed pages does not look the same as color on unlaminated pages.
  3. If you make a color change in part of a job, this may adversely affect the color in another part of the job. This is true for offset printing as well as digital printing.
  4. People see color differently, depending on their gender (women see color better than men) and on many other variables, and color can look different depending on the lighting conditions and the surrounding colors. (Red paint in a closed paint can is actually black, since color is a function of light and the physical action of the cones and rods in your eyes. That’s why red cars look gray under street lights at night.)
  5. The time comes when “good enough” is good enough. Only you can make this call. In my case, only the client who devised the color chip product for selecting make-up and clothing can say whether the colors in the proofs are close enough to the original colors she chose for her fashion system.
  6. When in doubt, start with the obvious, and start at the beginning. For instance, I asked my client to check the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black color builds in the InDesign art files to make sure the color builds in the original books and the 30 extra loose colors were identical. I may also ask the printer to make sure the printing paper for the proofs is the same as it was for the original 22 books (whiteness and brightness). I already asked whether there’s any chance that the PDF files or InDesign files for the same job could be “off” (damaged, inconsistent, etc.).

As you can see, this is not an exact science. A lot of people at the book printer have been working hard to make this right so my client will be happy. And she has been patient. We’ll see what happens.

Custom Printing: New Photo Book Printing Equipment

Monday, August 21st, 2017

I wrote a blog posting recently about advances in photo book production that allow for lay-flat binding of books up to 18” x 18” in format. This essentially means that you can produce photo books with every page spread a full-bleed 18” x 36” double-page image and with no image area lost into the gutter on any page spread.

This reflects the powerful emotional attachment of individuals (and hence corporations and advertisers) to physically printed photos. In the era of the Internet and smartphones that give almost everyone on the planet a camera to carry wherever they go, we have an overabundance of images. However, people still want to physically print the few images they love.

My friend and colleague who sent me the information on this particular binding equipment (the fastBook Professional by Imaging Solutions AG) just sent me another article. This one references a deal between HP, the maker of the HP Indigo digital press, and Shutterfly, a major photo publishing service.

HP and Shutterfly

Before we get into the press release, here’s some background on HP and Shutterfly.

To the best of my experience, nothing beats the color fidelity, color gamut, or overall quality of the HP Indigo, a digital electrophotographic (i.e., laser) printer that uses liquid toner. In my print buying work, I always look for commercial printing establishments with this equipment because I know that if my client’s job does not fit the press run length of an offset print job, she or he will still get offset quality custom printing from an HP Indigo. (That said, I’m sure there are other digital presses of stellar quality out there now.)

Now, for Shutterfly. Wikipedia says the following about this company:

“Shutterfly is an American Internet-based image publishing service based in Redwood City, California. Shutterfly’s flagship product is its photo book line.

“Shutterfly’s revenue derives from ‘turning digital snapshots into tangible things.’

“Shutterfly enables users to create personalized photo gifts (including photos and text) such as Samsung Galaxy and iPhone cases, photo books, wall art, and home décor.”

The Deal Between HP and Shutterfly

“HP Wins Five-Year Shutterfly Deal—Accelerates Digital Print Momentum” (published on 08/17/17 as a press release by HP and Shutterfly) references the second phase of Shutterfly’s adding HP Indigo 12000 digital printers to its equipment for the photo products it produces and sells. The article notes that HP is the preferred provider for this multi-phase rollout of digital custom printing equipment and that this initiative retires the digital presses that Shutterfly had been using for their photo books.

From a product-oriented perspective, the press release notes that Shutterfly will use the equipment to “produce a range of high-quality, personalized products and gifts including photo books, calendars, custom stationery, cards, and keepsakes.”

The article then shifts to the output quality and flexibility of the equipment, saying, “The 29-inch format HP Indigo 12000 Digital Press enables production of these products through offset matching digital color with true photo quality, high productivity, and wide versatility on an unmatched range of media including synthetic, metalized, and canvas applications.”

What’s the Emotional Hook Behind the Products and Quality?

Enrique Lores, President, Imaging & Printing Business, HP Inc, notes that “People click on what they like, but print what they love.”

The press release encourages companies to use the technology to engage with their customers and to help people explore their creativity, connect with other people, personalize their photo products, and “share life’s joy” (Dwayne Black, Senior Vice President, Chief Operations Officer, Shutterfly, Inc.).

At the same time, there’s a good business case for this partnership, since Shutterfly and HP have between them a huge base of image production knowledge, digital printing acumen, and awareness of customer photo imaging needs. Moreover, the HP Indigo equipment lends itself to printing substrate flexibility, personalization, quick job turn-around, and cost cutting. (This is in addition to superior image quality, reflected in HP Indigo’s work with such discriminating global corporations as Coca-Cola and Mondelez International/Oreo.)

Finally, the HP Indigo 12000s are B2 machines, which means that their maximum press sheet size rivals that of many offset commercial printing presses: (19.7” x 27.8”), allowing for larger press signatures and/or larger overall job trim sizes.

How Can This Benefit You?

In concert with the earlier PIE Blog post about ISAG’s fastBook Professional, this joint HP and Shutterfly article makes it clear that original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and service providers see increasing customer interest in printed photo products, whether photo books, calendars, cards, or other mementos. The manufacturers have made the commitment because the customers have shown sustained interest.

Therefore, it behooves you to understand the technology involved (digital electrophotography, also known as xerography or laser printing) as well as the differences between a desktop laser printer and a liquid-ink HP Indigo or similar high-end digital press. Get printed samples. Find vendors with this equipment, and decide which kinds of digital equipment you prefer. Closely check the color gamut, the resolution, and the color fidelity. Select your preferred vendors, if you are a graphic designer or a print buyer.

Also, learn how to design for digital commercial printing. Ask your print provider about any limits his digital equipment has, in terms of color builds, treatment of photos, and evenness of large ink solids.

If you’re a printer or a print sales rep, explore whether your client base has an interest in photo products. The article I described relates to flat prints on calendars or photo books produced via liquid-toner laser printing. But images can also be printed via inkjet technology (or even die sublimation technology), and you don’t have to limit yourself to print books.

You can print your photos on practically anything, including wood (think about the flatbed inkjet presses that accept thick, rigid substrates); fabric for drapes, wall coverings, bed sheets, and covers (think about die-sublimation printing on fabric); or even vinyl appliques that can be heat transferred from a paper sheet to a t-shirt. For that matter, while you’re researching fabric printing and garment printing, stop by an oceanside clothing store, and you’ll see any number of bathing suits and other sunwear printed with inkjet or dye-sublimation technology.

The “take-away” is that people want to print their photos. Not all of them. Just the ones they love. And there is no shortage of technologies (printing equipment and ink formulations) and substrates (everything from a book to a pen to a mug to a t-shirt). If you’re a commercial printing professional, this can be a stellar opportunity for you.

Custom Printing: New Photo Book Binding Equipment

Monday, August 14th, 2017

A close friend and colleague in the commercial printing business recently brought to my attention an article about new binding equipment for photo books. So I did some research online and discovered another area of growth within the custom printing arena: ultra-high-quality short-run books of photographs.

The Context

I think the popularity of such products is an outgrowth of our always-on business and social environment in which everyone has a camera in their phone. I know this is counterintuitive, but we now are awash in so many photos and videos that none of them are special. Think about it. Of the hundreds or thousands of images on your smartphone, how many have you printed? How many exist in physical space?

At the same time, as a culture we have few rites of passage anymore. Decades ago we had rituals (even if only social rituals) marking childhood, adolescence, marriage, childbirth and child-rearing, and retirement. The list goes on. We marked these rituals with printed photos, which we collected into photo albums, and it was a social experience to share the memories with friends and family by paging through these photo albums together.

Now we have fewer opportunities to celebrate our place within a larger social matrix and along a series of milestones in our lives. We may even have the photos, but we tend not to have printed, physical copies. In addition, our busy lives leave precious little time to even review the photos in our smartphones.

The Opportunity

I think this void provides an opportunity. Clearly the makers of photo books agree.

As I was researching the binding and photo printing equipment referenced in the article my friend and colleague sent me, the first thing that struck me was the kinds of photo products that had become both accessible and popular. They fell into three categories. The first supports my theory noted above (the need to record and share memories and/or social rituals). Let’s call these “familial,” or “social,” photo products: the celebration of the fact that we’re not alone.

These include the wedding photo books, the photo books documenting family events such as family reunions, and the Bar and Bat Mitzvah photo books. In essence, these are all about the place of an individual within a larger group.

The second category I would term “aspirational.” This is less about gratitude for what we have and also less focused on personal interactions. As a category it highlights what we want, and it would include the high-end “look books” produced by advertising agencies. These photo books comprise the luxury goods and services market for trips to paradise (exotic locations around the world) and purchases of fast cars, small jets, and such. Advertisers rule this venue of photo books.

A third market niche for this technology would be the leisure market. This would include photo books that focus on such pastimes as cooking and the fine arts.

But the bottom line is that producing ultra-high-quality printed—and bound—books of photos is fast becoming a growth industry within the commercial printing arena.

The Equipment

The article my friend and colleague sent me, “ISAG launches the fastBook Professional for Luxury photobooks,” released on 08/07/17, describes binding (specifically binding, not printing) equipment that provides economical but especially high quality binding services within this market segment.

ISAG stands for Imaging Solutions AG, which is a Swiss company that makes both imaging and binding equipment for photo books. One of their main markets for this equipment is photo labs (the contemporary equivalent of the 1960s drug store photo printing service—but of much higher quality).

First of all, the fastBook Professional binds big books. Your photo books can be anywhere from 8” x 8” to 18” x 18”. To put this in perspective, on the large end you could produce a book with full-bleed, double-page spreads throughout that are 36” wide by 18” tall. That’s big. Think of how a virgin beach would look in that format—or a Lamborghini.

In addition, print books produced on the fastBook Professional lay flat. The pages float slightly away from the spine, so the open book lies completely flat on a table, and each double-page spread is also completely flat. (That is, no part of a page spread is lost in the gutter of the print book.)

Furthermore, you can bind multiple kinds of paper into such a book, and you can glue paper to paper. More precisely, you can have book pages that include thicker stock (like cardboard) laminated between two sheets of printing paper. Since the feel of a print book is what makes it qualitatively different from images on a computer screen, the thick (composite) pages you can bind into the photo books lend an air of luxury to the overall experience of paging through such a “look book.”

If you have been alive for a number of decades, you probably remember back when photos were printed and “developed” rather than ink jet printed. Silver halide was the chemical on which photo printing depended, and photo printing was a chemical process, not a physical inkjet process. Now, with the fastBook Professional, you can print and bind both silver halide and digitally printed papers into your photo books (reaping the special benefits of each).

Benefits for the Photo Printers

From a business perspective this equipment makes good sense as well.

According to “ISAG launches the fastBook Professional for Luxury photobooks,” “The entire book block is produced in a single operation – with creasing, folding, pressing and gluing. Very little hotmelt glue is required which reduces the material costs and permits the next processing steps to happen right away. So the photobooks can be shipped the same day. ”

Translated into the language of business, this means that you can buy this equipment and then produce a lot of work quickly for less money. The operation is quick and automated, and the reduction in hotmelt glue makes for not only lower materials costs but also quicker throughput. You can bind more books in less time. You can take in more work, make more people happy, and make more money. Not only the customers (individuals and advertisers) but also the printers will benefit.

More precisely, here’s a statistic from the press release referencing one of the largest Turkish wedding book manufacturers, Chihan Exclusive Albums:

“Chihan Exclusive Albums produces an average of 100 wedding albums a day in various formats. In the peak wedding season, they can ship up to 200 books a day.”

According to the managing director of Chihan Exclusive Albums: “The fastBook Professional 1000 is the machine that for the first time surpasses the high quality of careful handwork. It is fully automatic and extremely fast.”

On this equipment, book binders can produce a photo book in one tenth of the time required for a hand-bound book.

What This Means to You

If you are a designer, this can be an opportunity for you to find new clients: both corporations/advertising agencies and individuals who want to memorialize their personal family rituals. If you are a commercial printing supplier, you can address the same growing market, using the increasingly efficient equipment available to produce ultra-high-quality photo books.

And if you are specifically a yearbook printer, you may just be in the right place at the right time in history.

For those of you who want to see what Imaging Solutions AG offers for printing the pages you will want to bind with the fastBook Professional 1000 (and/or the other binding equipment ISAG offers), here’s the link to their photo printing equipment:

Large Format Printing: What’s Behind the Standees?

Tuesday, August 8th, 2017

My fiancee and I spent about ten hours this week installing standees. It’s that time of year again, and movie theaters are receiving stacks of cartons containing the large format printed pieces that we will assemble into the (sometimes) massive cardboard structures used to promote upcoming movies.

When you look at the front of a standee, you can get lost in the promise of fantasy, adventure, and just plain good times. But what’s behind the standees?

I know this sounds like a trick question, or even a philosophical or psychological one based on marketing theory. But I mean it quite literally. Behind the ink or toner on paper (the graphic panels that face forward), there is a huge amount of artistry that goes unseen. That is, the finishing operations required to present a three-dimensional marketing structure both require a lot of thought before the actual design process and fabrication, and also depend a lot on several post-press operations.

Choice of Substrate

Last night when my fiancee and I were assembling the new Baywatch standee, I noticed that several of the structural elements looked alike but were made from different kinds of cardboard. Since I’m familiar with the graphic studio that designed this piece (and since I have a lot of respect for them), I assumed there was logic behind the decision.

One of the structural “girders” (for want of a better term) spanned the space between two base units I had just assembled. It was composed of chipboard (thinner than corrugated board and without the fluting). This was a horizontal piece. In contrast, two vertical girders, which were also 4” x 4” square crosswise and about six feet long, were made out of fluted cardboard, also printed black (presumably with flexographic ink).

I thought about why the design studio had made different substrate choices as I proceeded with assembly, but as I built up the portion of the standee above the horizontal chipboard base girder, I realized that the weight distribution requirements were different. The horizontal chipboard piece held less weight. Basically, it just connected the left and right base of the Baywatch lifeguard tower. In contrast, the thicker, vertical corrugated-board “poles” held up the entire lifeguard building. The moral is, chipboard is flimsy when compared to corrugated board. It’s perfect for some things, but not for “load-bearing” structures.

The Take-Away

Throughout the design and fabrication process, the standee designers are thinking in terms of structure. What has to be strong? What can be less strong, but perhaps lighter? And what commercial printing technology is required to decorate each: flexography, custom screen printing, offset printing, or digital printing? On a smaller scale, even the point of purchase and point of sale large format print products you see in the grocery stores depend on the same kinds of functional decisions as well as the marketing and commercial design decisions that influence the creation of the graphic panels the viewer sees.

Pattern Gluing, Die Cutting, and Scoring

I’m going to address these together because each depends closely on the others.

In many cases, when you look at the back of a standee, you’ll see one piece of cardboard that has been glued to another using hot-melt glue. For instance, in the back of a large graphic panel, or even a die cut figure, you might need a spacing “arm” (if you will), to hold the center of the piece rigid and straight. If you have a die cut figure, such as that of Dwayne Johnson in the Baywatch movie, such attachments may be needed to keep the lifesize image from flopping over or tearing off the standee.

In the case of the Dwayne Johnson “lug,” as these attachments are called in the industry, extra cardboard (flexo-printed black) has been hot-melt glued to the back of the die cut Dwayne Johnson image. If you fold in the tabs on this attachment and insert them into the background—and, if you use double sided tape on the bottom of his feet to attach the figure to the printed floor panel—Dwayne Johnson will be stable and secure.

So automated pattern gluing is integral to this process, even though the viewer will never see the glue or any of the strengthening cardboard attachments. And, by the way, the extra cardboard structures glued behind Dwayne Johnson’s character’s legs are made of corrugated board, not chipboard, for durability.

Regarding die cutting, you will see all number of cut-outs if you look closely at the structure of the standee. All tabs and all slots into which the tabs fit are die cut. In addition, the silhouettes of all the characters that are free-standing on cardboard poles had to be cut out of flat printed press sheets laminated to corrugated board. Everywhere you look, something has to be cut out, and all of the “scrap” (anything that’s not the image) has to be punched out and removed.

Granted, this kind of die cutting makes the silhouetted figures less sturdy. If you look closely, in fact, you’ll see that in transit through the Postal System, many of the die cut character figures have been banged up, since in most cases they are not securely attached together in the shipping carton. So it helps for a standee installer to have experience in the fine arts and commercial arts to be able to touch up the banged-up pieces with tape and marker pens.

Regarding scoring, all of the pieces of cardboard that will be folded must first be scored, and this is another automated post-press function. Scoring is, for want of a better term, a “pre-fold” crease made with a metal scoring rule on the cardboard using a letterpress. The scoring rule mashes the fluted corrugated board slightly, so that when my fiancee and I fold over the corners of the standee (or the spot-glued arms attached to the back of a figure to hold it straight), all of these pieces align correctly when folded. This is not for our ease of assembly. Rather it is to ensure that the folds are made exactly where the designers had intended, while avoiding mis-folding or tearing or any other problems.

The Nuts and Bolts

Any large format print product attached with enough screws in enough stress points will gradually become very strong. Some of these standees can have 80 or more screws, used for attaching pieces together while improving stability and strength. And all of the screw holes are considered die cuts, which means that overall, a massive and intricate matrix of die cuts has to be planned for (and metal die cutting rules created) to make all of this happen. If everything is not precisely and accurately aligned (with zero tolerance for even a hair’s breadth of misalignment), things won’t go together correctly. So to the educated viewer, each and every complex standee is a masterful success that has been clearly crafted by both knowledgeable graphic designers and the computer aided design hardware and software that are their tools of trade.

The Take-Away

Here are some thoughts to ponder:

  1. If you choose to be a standee designer, you will need to understand marketing, psychology, and graphic design. But you will also need to understand the laws of physics, differences in materials (such as chipboard vs. corrugated board), and all commercial printing processes (when to screen print, for instance—on clear plexiglass substrates; or when to flexo print—on incidental or unseen background pieces).
  2. All of this must be unbelievably expensive to do—per unit, ie., for each standee. So the press runs for these standees must be very long for the unit costs to be reasonable (think how many theaters receive the standees across the United States).
  3. However, for the larger standees, not every theater gets one (because they are expensive to produce, ship, and install). So for all of the post-press operations that will drive the unit cost of each standee way up, the overall press run is not unlimited, so the final cost per standee must still be very high.
  4. This shows how much the movie industry depends on, and how committed it is to, marketing.

Final Thoughts

If you can handle the deadlines, this may be a very lucrative field for commercial designers to consider. It’s fun, and it challenges both your creative and mathematical/engineering skills.

Custom Printing: Using Commercial Printing Technology in the Fine Arts

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

When I’m not brokering commercial printing or writing about printing, I’m usually preparing for the art therapy classes my fiancee and I offer to autistic students. My fiancee is an art therapist, and I have a background in fine arts as well as graphic design and custom printing.

I am often surprised and pleased at how the principles of design and the techniques and materials of the visual arts pertain to both commercial design/printing and the fine arts (painting, drawing, collage, etc.).

Inkjet Printing for Fine Art Prints

That said, today my fiancee and I were looking at dog and cat drawings online to get inspiration for an upcoming art project. She showed me two prints of dogs that we had bought from a painter several years ago, and asked if one of them was a giclee.

I looked closely with my 12-power printer’s loupe. I saw the telltale spots of an inkjet printer. In contrast to halftone dots, the spots of an inkjet printer (in my experience) are all the same size. There are just more of them in dense areas of color. (That is, in contrast to the variable-sized halftone dots in traditional—“amplitude modulated”—halftones, these were “frequency modulated” dots: more or fewer of them based on the required ink density.)

Beyond the technical description, the giclee (which now refers to fine arts printing from all inkjet equipment but which once referred only to the Iris, a high quality continuous-tone inkjet proofing device used in the 1980s) democratized art ownership. Granted, my fiancee and I have a print by the artist (it is signed) that we know many, many others also have purchased. However, we at least get to see it daily and own it for substantially less than the cost of the original painting from which it was reproduced.

This wouldn’t be relevant if the print was of low quality. So the whole idea of a giclee is to maintain the extended color gamut, high resolution, and lack of color banding that high-end inkjet printers using between four and seven (usually) ink colors can achieve. When you print this quality on archival paper, you have affordable, lower-market-value, but highly attractive, prints. For the most part, anyone can own one, hence my use of the term “democratization.” Moreover, it’s a great example of the marriage of commercial printing and the fine arts.


Another technique I’ve been playing with to eventually bring to our autistic students is the monotype. In contrast to a monoprint, which is made using an already created printing plate, a monotype is basically made from paint or ink applied to a flat surface (like a metal or plastic sheet) that is then transferred to printing paper.

This is how it works (and if you do the research online, you’ll find that it is a very old technique used by the likes of William Blake, Edgar Degas, and Castiligone). First, you paint an image on a glass sheet, copper plate, or other material (called the “matrix”). Then you lay a piece of watercolor paper or other paper over the flat plate, and either run the two through a printing press or rub on the back of the paper with a spoon or other flat instrument (like a brayer) to provide sufficient pressure to transfer the image from the plate to the paper.

You may ask how this pertains to commercial printing. Interestingly enough, it is a planographic process just like offset lithography. Unlike relief printing, in which the image area rises above the surface of the printing plate (like letterpress), or intaglio printing, in which the image area is sunken below the surface of the plate (like engraving), both the offset printing done by the huge machines at commercial printing establishments and the monotype printing I did in my fiancee’s kitchen share one thing in common. Both the printing and non-printing area of the plate are on the same flat level. The only major difference is that in offset lithography, the ink is attracted to the image area and repelled by the non-image area. And this is because:

  1. Ink (which is oil-based) and water repel each other, and
  2. Ink is made to be attracted to the image area, while the non-image area attracts water.

So again, fine arts and the commercial arts overlap.

Why, you may ask, would someone make a monotype, which is essentially a single print from a temporarily inked plate (which, by the way, can be made with ink, watercolors, or presumably any other kind of paint) when they can just paint a painting? It is because of the fluid, dreamy lines created as the paper, ink, and plate are pressed together, as well as the lack of control that often leads to random and unexpected artistic successes. The results are a bit like wet on wet watercolor painting. You don’t always know what you’ll get, and sometimes there are happy accidents.

Creating an Additive Manufacturing Relief Plate

Another art project I’ve been considering for our autistic students involves first drawing on a substrate in pencil and then going over the lines with liquid white school glue. (I guess this would be a real relief printing plate, but it is also reminiscent of the digital process of 3D printing.) The liquid white school glue is essentially a raised layer (like the layers built up on an additive manufacturing “inkjet” press).

When you rub commercial printing ink or paint over the surface of the plate you have just made, the raised layer of dried liquid school glue will accept the ink because it is a raised surface (i.e., it is a relief plate). You can then lay a sheet of paper over the custom printing plate, and by rubbing the back of the sheet with a spoon, you can transfer the image from the plate to the paper.

In this case the ink that had adhered to the raised lines of hardened glue would print, so you would get what would essentially be a line drawing. You could then fill in the spaces between the lines with other colors.

Interestingly enough, this is very similar to the process I’ve read about that is used to create digital scoring dies. Based on computerized data, a printer can build up, layer upon layer, a rule in just the right place to score (or crease) the printing stock for folding. Prior to the invention of this additive manufacturing process, it was necessary to create a metal die, which would be used on a letterpress to add the necessary score that would allow thick paper to be folded evenly, without unsightly breaking or mashing of the paper fibers.

Again, this is an overlap between the fine arts and commercial printing technology.

What You Can Learn from This Case Study

Here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. If you look closely, you will see a lot of similarities between the commercial arts and the fine arts. Study the work of Ben Shahn (a painter as well as an illustrator of posters), Piet Mondrian (when you learn page layout for graphic design, you study Mondrian’s contributions), and even the posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Or look at the Pop Art of Andy Warhol. I think you will find it rewarding and intriguing to discover the similarities between these two apparently different art forms.
  2. Pay close attention, and you will see many of the new commercial printing technologies being used in the creation of fine art products. Either they are used directly (for example, Photoshop is used to create works of art on the computer, or to alter them), or they are used to produce multiple copies of a single work of art (a giclee print of a painting, for instance), allowing much wider distribution of an artist’s work.
  3. If you look closely, you will see the same principles of design used in both fine art paintings and commercial printing, including symmetric and asymmetric balance, rhythm, texture, and the application of color theory.

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