The Joy of Ink I

Think twice about becoming a digital artist.

While at my local print shop — again being frustrated at trying to get colors to print correctly — Xander (one of the printers who works there) casually mentioned that digital art as seen on a computer and digital art as seen in a print are two different media.  (By the way, the shop is Autumn Express in the Mission District, San Francisco.  Go there!)

I had never thought about digital art in that way before.  The idea prompted me to write a few blog posts about my experience with light and pigment.  It’s been a bumpy journey — but ultimately rewarding.  I hope that writing about my successes and challenges might make it a little easier for the next aspiring digital artist….

In the beginning, I thought it would be easy.  For my first solo exhibition (when I was teaching in Princeton, NJ), my art teacher’s friend and colleague generously printed my images for me, and frankly, they were perfect.  (Thanks, Bryan!  By the way, Bryan does some amazing work — check out his website here.)

So I thought, “Hey, Bryan got it right the first time.  No problem!”  But, as it turns out, the typical print shop printer is, well, not Bryan.  There’s an art to printing, and some printers are more artisitic than others.

For example, when I was in Florida in Fall 2014, I designed some greeting cards to sell at a gallery for local artists.  I needed to find somewhere close by where I could get them printed relatively inexpensively — I wanted to make a little money out of the adventure.  I took my designs to a local shop, printed them out, and they looked horrible.  Colors washed out and muted — bland.  There was no one who worked there who knew much about color, so I was stuck.  I gave up on this project.

I had better luck with Ron (of No Naked Walls in Port Richey, FL).  He had a real interest in printing and photography — even had a collection of some very old cameras.  And he had just bought a brand spanking new printer (not sure how many thousands of dollars it cost), and enjoyed playing around with it.

Gamut is the issue.  A color gamut is the range of colors you can produce with your device.  A computer screen uses red, green, and blue phosphors which are excited by electron beams to generate colors (see a simple explanation here).  Using light to create color sensations is referred to as additive color.  A printer, on the other hand, mixes pigments — usually cyan, magenta, yellow, and black — to create color, which is known as subtractive color.

Now this isn’t meant to be an in-depth tutorial on color (that would take far too many posts) — but the bottom line is that the gamut of colors produced by your color monitor is not the same as the gamut of colors produced by your local printer.  (And if you want to know more, just google any of the terms in this brief discussion and you’ll find lots more to read.)

And it gets more problematic when you realize that different monitors may  also have different color gamuts.  Monitors may be calibrated in many ways, each rendering coloring differently.  So what looks just right on one laptop may look slightly off on a different one.

But Ron was willing to work with me.  He’d take my jpeg, upload it into his version of Photoshop (again, differences!), and then print it out — and it wouldn’t look like it did on my computer screen.  We’d work back and forth — testing small sections of a large print, changing the colors slightly, then printing again — until we got something that looked good to me.

What you’ll find out is that not every printer knows all that much about color, and not every printer is willing to work with you.  The first printer I went to in San Francisco, Photoworks on Market St., really wasn’t all that helpful.

I was hopeful about an online printer — ProDPI — I heard about from a colleague at a conference.  He had good luck with having prints made and shipped directly to clients.  I wasn’t so lucky.  When I had samples printed and they were too yellow, I was (after many email exchanges) politely informed that because they dealt mainly with portraits, their printers were calibrated to print colors a little warmer, and no, they did not intend to modify their profile any time soon.

I did try adjusting the colors and printing a second set of samples, and they were also not quite right.  I suppose I could have continued this back-and-forth with waiting for samples to arrive in the mail, tweaking them, and repeating the cycle — but I didn’t want to do this with every image I wanted to print.  So I gave up on ProDPI.

How I found Autumn Express was completely serendipitous.  I needed to get some prints made for an exhibition at a big national mathematics conference, and I wasn’t having any luck.  I was visiting friends over our winter break, and I even frantically called to see if we could visit some local print shops while I was traveling.

But some of my housemates have a video game company, and they get stuff printed all the time.  I happened to ask JJ where they got their material printed, and the rest is, well, history.

I never knew finding a good printer would be so difficult.  I needed to understand color gamuts.  But more importantly, I learned that printing is not just a matter of pushing a few buttons, but is really an art.  Bryan made it look so easy.  But it’s not.

Next week, I’ll talk about a few specifics — settings in Photoshop, for example.  And I’ll say a little more about how what you see on your computer screen might be rather deceiving.  But then you’re on your own….