printing for artists

Printing for Artists

Contemporary artists are becoming less reliant on printed materials to get the word out about their projects. But printing is still an important component of ongoing marketing campaigns. It is useful to know the basics about printing, and this guide will give you a short overview of things to know before out-sourcing print jobs. There are many more print options coming on to the market, so do some research, figure out what you can afford, and print wisely.

Studies have found that, while many people use email as a primary way of getting the word out, emails tend to be disregarded or forgotten. Sending a postcard in the mail, which can be tacked up as a visual reminder, remains a good practice. Printing postcard announcements is also a good idea because sometimes this is the only printed documentation of an exhibition.

Basic Printing Processes

Copy Machines – Often called Xerox machines, these are copies of an original printed copy on a xerographic printer.

Letterpress –  an old school technique currently being revived. It is a set of metal letters set in order, then inked and printed on a sheet of paper.

Digital Offset – this process puts ink on paper as does “conventional” printing, but it does away with film, plates, and separate proofing systems. With no minimum quantity, it has a fast turnaround and great quality.

Offset Litho – this process is the conventional route. It produces a wonderful result but has a lot of up-front costs and usually involves a minimum order quantity in the hundreds. It is not a fast process, and color proofs are sometimes produced using a different process than the final print job, which can lead to inaccuracy.
The above processes can be used to produce postcards, announcements, brochures, portfolios, greeting cards, etc.

Giclee (pronounced Jee-Clay) – Basically high quality and archival ink jet printing. Giclee prints are widely regarded as one of the highest quality reproductions currently available. There is no minimum quantity, and proofing is done “on-press” so you get perfect color matching. You can print on canvas as well as paper, and it will have the look and feel of the original artwork. It is light fast, has no up-front costs, and can be ordered as needed. (See the section on Editions if you are printing in batches.)    

Ink-Jet – The easiest DIY method of printing is ink-jet. It can be expensive due to the high cost of printer ink. If you do not have many documents to print, this might be an option.

LightJet –  While no longer used, since LightJet printers are no longer manufactured, these were used to print digital images to photographic paper and film. The term LightJet is still used to generically describe a chromogenic print that is made digitally as a laser version of a c-print process

Finding a Printer

One of the best things you can do is find a printer who understands the demands of fine art reproduction. Always ask to see samples, and shop around. Online research is a good place to start.

Ask a lot of questions about the printing process and outcome, and discuss your requirements with a printer before committing.

How to Save Money

Send a digital file if possible, either through email, on a CD, or a thumb drive. This will skip the scanning step, which costs more money. 

While there is usually no minimum order for Giclee and Digital Offset prints, the cost per copy will change based on quantity.

Ask for help and advice before you start the design process for your print job. Find a helpful, patient printer to work with. Many printers, especially larger companies, have their own templates and color profiles that you can download to speed up the production time, save money on set up fees, and ensure accurate color.

Sometimes schools post jobs for students in the graphic design department, and they may be cheaper than a professional designer. You can also research small private printers and friends with the necessary equipment. You might also bring up the idea of a barter or trade. (See Bartering and Trading chapter for details.)


Scanning can be a very important part of the process. If you do not know how to scan an image properly, have the printer do it for you. Scanning is usually a one-time charge, sometimes services will charge by the megabyte (MB). Once the image, document, or film is scanned, you can reproduce the image, use it online, send in an email, etc. There are many ways to have your media scanned. If you are scanning documents, illustrations, printed photographs, and other flat material, a flatbed scanner is a typical choice. If you have film, slides, or transparencies, a drum scan or virtual drum scan is the best option to convert your analog media into digital media. It is good practice to scan your materials in the highest resolution possible. This ensures that you will only have to scan the object once. If you need a smaller file, simply downsize the resolution and save a new copy. Always keep the high-res files for your archive in the event you will need to reproduce the image for an exhibition, press, etc. 

Green Printing

The Recycled Products Cooperative estimates that over 100 million trees are cut each year to supply fiber for writing and printing papers in the United States. This is not only detrimental to forests, but also to air quality and water reserves.

How to make your print job more environmentally friendly:

Choose recycled paper whenever possible. Check out the recycled content percentage on items you buy, and select those with the most recycled content. However, keep in mind that most recycled materials are not archival.

Do you know where to dispose of used printer inks? Petroleum-based inks leach VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which cause cancer and birth defects, into the soil when printed materials end up in landfills. They can also be released into the air while inks dry. To dispose of these kinds of materials, find a local toxic recycling plant or drop-off site in your area.

Soy ink is an excellent alternative to petroleum-based inks. Soy ink uses soybean oil that’s naturally low in VOCs. This smart substitute is sustainable, efficient, and competitively priced. Many newspapers and magazines are now printed with soy ink.

Do it digitally. Digital printing is ideal for short-run, four-color work for business cards, stationery, promotional pieces, and most print work that is less than 1,000 sheets of 14 x 20 inches. This printing method even has advantages over soy inks. While soy is comprised of 86 % oil, which isn’t biodegradable, digital printing uses 100 % nontoxic toner. Toner-based inks also produce less chemical waste.

Use tree-free paper such as Denim Blues (100 percent reclaimed blue jean cotton), and synthetic papers by Yupo because of their environmental attributes and durability. Consider using papers made of hemp and Knaf, or a paper called TerraSkin, which is made from ground stone. There are many new kinds of papers now available, such as Bamboo paper (they now make disposable/compostable plates too) or other new materials.

Bleaching processes have changed over the years, but look for those products that are approved by the Chlorine Free Products Association and bear PCF and TCF emblems on consumer packaging.


Feel free to share this article with other artists.

You can also get our popular book for artists, Getting Your Sh*t Together: The Ultimate Business Manual for Every Practicing Artist, which includes all of this information and more here.