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Art Printing: How to Make Art Prints

Updated on October 9, 2014
Paula Atwell profile image

Paula Atwell is a freelance writer with WriterAccess, webmaster, member of Pinterest Party on FB and the owner of Lake Erie Artist Gallery.

How to make art prints
How to make art prints | Source
Color swatches for art prints
Color swatches for art prints | Source

Preparing Print-Ready Artwork for a Commercial Printer

More and more these days, people are designing newsletters, fliers and brochures on their home computers to take to a commercial printer. Many times everything goes smoothly and the customer is quite satisfied. Other times, for whatever reason, it seems that nothing is right. What makes the difference? What are the "secrets" that printers wish the general pubic knew about setting up and submitting digital files? Read on and I will fill you in from the printer's point of view.

What program should I use?

(Hint: MS Word is not a page layout program)

Those in the printing industry utilize software that makes setting up artwork a snap. In my shop, we use Adobe InDesign, which is a wonderful improvement over their previous Pagemaker program. InDesign has become the industry standard for page layout. Trouble is, it is not inexpensive to buy and has a big learning curve. If you are lucky enough to have access to InDesign for your design work, your printer will most likely have very little problem with your files.

Another layout program is Quark. This used to be the industry standard, but has been replaced by InDesign. Our shop no longer uses Quark, nor do we accept Quark files from customers, so I won't go into discussing that program here.

The most common and least expensive page layout program for the average person is Microsoft Publisher. This is an easy-to-use program that makes printers cringe. Some printers refuse to accept Publisher files. Publisher is geared towards printing on home printers, not for color separating or high-end printing. The more recent versions of Publisher have become more commercial printer-friendly, and with the growing popularity of color copiers the issue of color separations is often not an issue.

Microsoft Word was never intended to be used as a page layout program, nor was Excel or PowerPoint. They are great programs for their intended use, but they give printers huge headaches. Please do not use these programs for page layout.

Regardless of which program you use, knowing how to make a PDF is a must! When submitting your digital files, an accompanying PDF file will allow the printer to see exactly how you expect the piece to look, and many times your piece can be printed directly from the PDF! How awesome is that!

The Non-Designer's Design Book: Non-Designers Design Bk_p3
The Non-Designer's Design Book: Non-Designers Design Bk_p3

Easy and fun to read, Ms. Willliams points out common errors and shows you how to make it better. Don't start designing until you read this!


The Non-Designer's Design Book

If you're just getting started in design, the next step would be to get your hands on a great book called "The Non-Designer's Design Book" by Robin Williams. No, not the actor. This book is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to make great looking newsletters, brochures or other design work.

Links and fonts and bleeds

The little things that give printers headaches

Links are the graphics that you use in your document. Publisher usually embeds the graphics, but InDesign creates links. Linking keeps your overall file size smaller and more manageable. How does a link work? When you place a graphic in a document, InDesign displays an image of the graphic, but leaves the original in your computer. Next time you open the document, it knows where to look for it. But if you move the InDesign document to another computer or to the commercial printer and don't move the graphic too, InDesign won't be able to find the graphic. The result will be that the graphic looks really crappy (technical term there!) when you print it because InDesign can find only the low-res thumbnail and not the original. To remedy this, always always when you start a new project make a folder in which to keep your InDesign file and any graphics you use. Then everything is neatly in one place and everyone is happy.

Fonts. We all know what fonts are. Fonts set the whole mood of the piece. There are thousands and thousands of fonts out there in the virtual world, but beware! Not every computer has the same fonts. You may have a special font on your computer that you just love, but if your printer doesn't have it on his computer, there will be a problem. Even fonts with the same name will look slightly different on different computers, depending on the type of font (True Type, PostScript, Open Type, Mac or PC). What looks good on your PC might show (and flow) differently on your printer's Mac.

What to do about links and fonts? Before you send your project off to the printer, there is one last important step - Package it! This is a built-in feature in both InDesign and Publisher (Publisher's is called Pack & Go) that automatically seeks out the graphics and fonts used in your document and gathers everything in a nice, neat folder that will make your printer smile. This is an essential final step. To make things easier on everyone, learn to Pack & Go with Publisher.

So what the heck are bleeds? Sounds messy! Actually, it's not as messy as it sounds. Bleeds are simply the 1/8" that extends beyond the edge of your document. When you have an image that you want to go to the edge of your printed piece, that image has to be just a teensy bit bigger. This will get cut off after it's printed and the image will "bleed" off the edge of the paper with no white margin showing. This gives a more polished and professional look to your piece. Setting up bleeds in Publisher is tricky - you need to make your entire page size 1/4" bigger (to allow for 1/8" on all sides). InDesign has settings that make dealing with bleeds a breeze. A common mistake many new designers make is not considering the bleed allowance but instead creating the piece the exact finished size. This gives no leeway when cutting and you may end up with unwanted white edges.

Also, please give your document adequate margins. A business card should have at least a 1/8" margin from the text to the edge. Larger documents should have 1/4" to 3/8". This gives your text room to "breathe" and gives some leeway for any shifting that may occur in the printing process.

If you are unsure of what your printer requires, please, please give them a call. They will be more than happy to answer your questions. It's much easier to deal with potential issues early in the game, rather than when you're under a tight deadline and the file you gave the printer isn't working right.

How to make art prints (photograph)
How to make art prints (photograph) | Source

Getting Art Graphics to Look Right

To print great looking graphics you must start with a high-resolution image. Photos should be 300 dpi. (That's dots per inch, also known as ppi or pixels per inch.) Line drawings should be 1200 dpi. And no, it doesn't work to plug in a higher dpi (say, from 72 to 300). You can take pixels out but you can't put them in.

Please note: you cannot download a photo from the average website to use in printing. The quality usually just isn't there and you will end up with a jagged, pixilated printout. Web graphics use 72 dpi, which isn't adequate for printing. Sure, it looks great on the screen - that's where it was intended to be viewed. It won't look great on paper.

Not only are graphics from the web low resolution, most of the time they are also copyrighted and you will be breaking copyright laws if you download and use them in your piece. Please read the fine print; some sites allow free use of their graphics. If you don't see the fine print, assume the image is copyrighted and do not use it.

What about format? What's wrong with using a .jpg? JPGs are "lossy" images, meaning they lose a good bit of information to save on file space. Every time you save a jpg, you lose information. For a nice, crisp printed image, always save your image as a .tiff.

And always, always, resize your graphics to the final size. That photo you just downloaded from your camera is probably something like 24" x 13" at 72 dpi and many megabytes. You'll be tempted to plop it into your design, grab the corners and resize it there. Don't do it! It appears to be the right size, but it still contains all those megabytes, making your file huge and causing delays in loading and printing. Fire up your photo editing software (if you don't have Photoshop, you probably have editing software that came with your camera) and resize that puppy. If you need a 4" x 3" photo in your flyer, resize that huge photo to 4" x 3". You can also, at this time, change the dpi. This is the only time you can go from 72 to 300: when you make a large photo smaller. Resizing to the final size greatly reduces file size, making the entire project much easier to deal with.

When In Doubt Call The Printer

Colorful paints
Colorful paints | Source

Matching Colors When Printing Original Fine Art

Color is simple, right? Color is all around us; we don't give it a second thought. Nor do we need to, until it comes time to print the great poster you just created. Now the printer is tossing around words like 4-color process, CMYK, RGB, Pantone, spot colors... what the heck is he talking about?! Now you wish you would have called at the very beginning to find out what his requirements are. Who knew, right? Let me try to de-mystify this business.

Full color photos you see in magazines are generally done in CMYK 4-color process. This stands for Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and blacK. Believe it or not, all those colors you see in the magazines are made up of different amounts of these 4 colors. Truly amazing! This is higher end printing, when you have, for example, a glossy catalog to print.

But what about this poster you just made? You probably don't want to spend the money for 4-color printing just for 500 prints advertising your concert. But one color is so boring. There are a couple routes you can go here but first be sure to discuss it with your printer. If he has a color copier, you can make your flyer as colorful as you want and you don't have to concern yourself about CMYK at all. In fact, color copiers use RGB (Red, Green, Blue), and Publisher creates in RGB so there is no problem. Your other option would be spot colors. When your printer starts talking about PMS colors, he's not talking about a monthly female affliction. He's talking about the Pantone Matching System. Ask to see his Pantone book - you will be amazed at the range of colors, each one having a specific number that tells the pressman how to mix the inks. Spot colors are good when you want only one or two (sometimes three) specific colors that you want to be consistent from one printing to the next. (The problem with color copiers is that the color can vary each time you have your piece printed.)

InDesign was designed to deal with any color situation, from CMYK, RGB, to spot colors. It has a built-in Pantone library, making it simple to call out spot colors. Publisher defaults to using RGB colors disguised as fancy-named themes. You can find Pantone colors in Publisher, but it takes a little digging. Publisher used to be impossible when it came to spot colors; luckily, the newer versions of Publisher deal with color separations much better.

What are color separations? you ask. I'll tell you. A CMYK document will require 4 different plates (plates are what go on the press to transfer the ink): one for each of the colors. Spot colors require a separate plate for each color. You get the idea. RGB does not color separate into separate plates. RGB is meant for viewing on a screen. So if you take a Publisher file to your printer, he will have to convert the RGB to spot colors if it's going on the press rather than the color copier. Generally not a big deal, but your piece will look a little different from what you see on the screen.

While we're on the subject of color separations, let me just say that Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint do NOT color separate in any way, shape or form. Do not take your red and blue Word document to your printer and expect him to run it on the press; it just won't happen.


PDF (Portable Document Format) is a life saver! Saving your file as a PDF will almost guarantee the finished product will look as you expected with the least amount of fuss and muss. Most programs these days make it a snap to generate a PDF, usually through the File>Save As steps. You will have options to consider, such as resolution and crop marks. Select High Quality Printing (300 dpi) and turn on crop marks. If you have any questions about what to select, call your printer.

The thing to remember...

if you have any questions at all about what your printer wants and needs from you, simply pick up the phone and CALL! He will be more than happy to answer your questions and will be delighted that you took the time to iron out potential problems before bringing in your digital file (usually at the last minute before a deadline!).

© 2009 Paula Atwell


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    • Viss profile image

      Vishal Chaudhary 

      5 years ago from New Delhi, India

      InDesign is great, it is actually part of my work. Last month I corrupted few INDD files, some of them were client's files.I had bad time but thanks to Stellar Phoenix InDesign Repair. It repaired each of them without compromising with data fields.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Thank you, this is very good to know!

    • kindoak profile image


      7 years ago

      Ah.. you beat me to it ;) Anyway, I used to have a printing company and did a lot of the work myself. For true offset printing you need to know about CMYK - or accept some color tone variations on the finished print. Paper quality can also make a big difference.


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