Learn how to print digital art: the printer's cheat sheet
Create picture-perfect printed art
Printing art can be overwhelming but, for an artist, mastering the printing process is essential. Paul Shipper is known for his iconic movie posters and has spent years creating quality, large-format prints. “Creating a print that matches the color, quality of line, and texture used in the original artwork is very important for me to capture in a fine art print,” Paul says. “I want the art print to encapsulate the vibrancy, thought, and consideration that went into the original illustration as closely as possible — so much so that whoever looks at it may find themselves wondering if it is actually the original piece.”
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Paul Shipper’s movie poster style artwork highlights the importance of printing best practices. Image source: Paul Shipper.
Fortunately, there are ways to ensure your printed art looks as close to the original as possible. Using the right creative program is essential. “I use Adobe Photoshop as part of my daily workflow and use it to send all my artwork to print,” says Paul. “It has all the necessary options and makes printing super easy work.”
Whether you’re printing from your desktop in Photoshop or a tablet in Adobe Sketch, understanding the following elements and how they impact printing will help you put your best art forward.
Pixels are definitely something you’ve heard of, and it’s likely you’re intimately familiar with them. The name pixel comes from the term “picture element” (picture + element = pixel). They’re the smallest unit on a grid depicting an image, and they can be round or square. Think of them like the atoms of pictures. Pixels are measured by the number of pixels per inch, or ppi. The more pixels per inch, the sharper your image will appear. Conversely, the fewer pixels per inch, the more likely you are to encounter pixelation — when you can see the edge of each pixel.
This is the same raster image at different zoom levels. Notice how the pixels become more visible. Image source: Renée di Cherri.
Some important things to remember about pixels: You can’t really modify the number of pixels in an image. You can attempt to resample an image, but this isn’t recommended and doesn’t always yield the best results. You can resize an image, which means changing the actual size of each pixel, but thinking of pixel needs from the beginning will yield the best results. Typically, an application will ask what size of canvas or artboard you want to create when you begin working on a project, and you can specify the size in pixels or inches.
Also keep in mind that the required ppi for digital images and printing are vastly different. Digital images found on the internet typically have around 72 ppi. This is completely insufficient for printing an enlarged image and part of the reason why those internet pictures you printed to hang on your wall in the fifth grade were either blurry or small.
When discussing printing, resolution (or image resolution) means the number of pixels per square inch of printed paper. Standard resolution for a printed image is 300 ppi. This means that when you’re printing a 4×6, you should have 1200×1800 pixels.
Resolution has great bearing on whether or not your print turns out looking professional. Again, this is something to be cognizant of when starting a new project. For example, if you know that the end result needs to be printed poster size, make sure you have allowed for enough pixels in your artboard to enlarge the image without losing quality. If you’re not certain, it’s best to err on the side of more pixels.
Dots per inch, or dpi, is similar to pixels, but indicates the number of ink dots printed per inch. This number is the printer resolution and is not directly associated with your image, but instead with the printer itself. “I send all art to the printer at 300 dpi,” Paul says. The higher the dpi, the smoother and better the image quality will be. The printer or printing service you use will usually specify the resolution they need to create quality prints, but 300 dpi is standard.
How pixels, resolution, and dpi affect your prints can vary from printer to printer. “Find yourself a good print partner,” Paul says. “Or, if you have your own print setup, a partner who understands what you want to create and can advise you.” Having a relationship with a print partner can help create prints that reflect the original intention of your art.
Raster vs. vector
Raster images are bitmap images — images made up of pixels. You know them by names such as tiff, jpeg, or gif. Photographs are a prime example of a raster image. Because they are made of pixels, you have to be careful that the file you want to print is saved at a high enough resolution. They’re the high-maintenance friend of image files. You have to be more careful about specifications when printing them, but they are essential for photographs and still widely standard for web publishing.
This vector image maintains crisp edges at different zoom levels. Image source: Renée di Cherri.
Vector images originate in math. There are different types of math going on behind the scenes for all vectors — like points, shapes, and strokes. Each vector is actually made up of invisible points on a grid. The points are connected by mathematical equations. This means as you scale a vector up in size, the math behind the scenes keeps everything crisp and in the right proportions. For this reason, vectors are most commonly used for logos, type, font, clipart, etc. They’re much more flexible than their pixelated counterpart and can be easily scaled, which makes them great for any project that will be printed at a large scale.
The sizes you can print an image or artwork are endless, as long as you have the right resolution. Using Adobe Sketch or Adobe Draw, you can even create custom canvases directly from your tablet or smartphone. The Creative Cloud apps have the most common sizes — like poster, postcard, A4, and photo print — available to choose when you open a new document or canvas.
When choosing a print size, it helps to choose one similar to the original. “Most of my final work is sized at 27×40,” says Paul. “So, when I do fine art prints of my work they are usually printed at 16×24 and 24×36, which echo the original dimensions perfectly.” You can also create a custom canvas size.
To create your own custom preset in Sketch or Draw, tap on this plus button in your Project Organizer (it should look the same in both apps).
That will open a pop-up window with common presets and a “New Format” option to create a custom-sized canvas.
A dialog box, requiring the details of your new canvas size, will pop up. Give the new format a name, such as “Instagram Posts,” so you can remember what this preset is for, then choose from pixels, inches, centimeters, or millimeters to measure the width and height of the canvas.
You’ll see your chosen resolution, and the maximum layers available to you in Sketch and Draw with that canvas size. A smaller total canvas size (and/or lower ppi) will allow more layers to be created, while a larger canvas (and/or higher ppi) will allow fewer layers. These numbers scale to keep app performance in tip-top shape and prevent crashes. Once you’ve saved the format, it will be available to you as a canvas option each time you open Sketch or Draw.
Color, and how you use it when printing, is a vast and nuanced subject. Here are the basics to get you started.
One of the main concerns when printing is maintaining color integrity. In order to have precise, consistent color management, it helps to understand color profiles. A color profile is the data that defines color within a certain space (like a program or printer). Programs typically have preset color profiles, but you can adjust them if necessary. The main color profiles are RGB and CMYK.
RGB stands for red, green, and blue. It represents the colors emitted by screens, making it the optimal choice when designing digital materials. Desktop printers have internal software that converts RGB data to CYMK, so it’s best to keep an RGB profile when printing to this kind of printer.
CYMK — cyan, yellow, magenta, and key (black) — is the general standard for printing. The colors are mixed during the printing process, and CYMK has the most accuracy for projects with a lot of color. When printing artwork with more than one color for commercial production, a separate masterplate must be printed for each color. You can also customize how these plates are printed in Photoshop.
Managing these color profiles for printing and document transfer is another important step to maintaining color integrity. Paul relies heavily on Photoshop for color management. “We found that allowing Photoshop to handle color works best for print output,” he says. “Just make sure you have the specific paper preset loaded.” You can preview how what you’re printing will look for each individual device. Learn more about color management in Photoshop.
Create picture-perfect printed art
Much of getting a quality print relies on knowing how each of these elements — pixels, dpi, resolution, file type, print size, and color — will affect your art from the beginning and throughout the process. With this understanding, your prints will not only look more professional, but will also more effectively communicate the intent of your original art.