How to Prepare Distressed Artwork

A common request from screen-printing customers is to make their garment logo look beaten up, aged or worn out.

A common request from screen-printing customers is to make their garment logo look beaten up, aged or worn out. This makes it look like their favorite shirt – that comfortable tee, worn dozens of time and washed so much that the print starts to fade, crack or erode in brightness and density. Distressed prints simply look more relaxed, and customers have gravitated toward this trendy artwork style for years.

Fortunately for screen printers, the distressed effect is relatively simple to create, edit and print. An overlay can be created for the worn-out look, and it can be quickly added or removed in art approvals for clients.

But since this effect is easy to do, it’s often created in such a rush that it can cause multiple problems for printers during production. The distress overlay can damage the image in areas where it isn’t expected, making the type hard to read or causing an underbase print to stand out starkly from overprint colors. The best way to manage these issues is to address each one during a quality control check for each design that has a distress filter applied to it.

There are three processes for creating a distressed effect. Let’s look at each one.

1. Texture Photo
The rapid explosion of available photos – either online or from a simple cellphone picture – makes texture photos a quick and easy option. If you don’t already have rights-free texture photos, you can find many sources online. CreativeCommons.org is one example. You can also buy photos from istockphoto.com. Be extra careful, however, that photos are used correctly; distorting, cutting or using photos in certain manners could potentially violate copyrights.

If you want to be extra safe, or create something completely custom, you can quickly shoot a texture photo. For an example, a cellphone photo of a wooden door texture can be used to create a distress layer (Figure 1).

The photo should be imported into CorelDRAW. Next, convert it to grayscale and adjust to high contrast using the curves menu. The resulting black-and-white texture is then converted to a monochrome bitmap, the background is filled as clear and the foreground is changed to match the background color. This creates a fast, organic distress overlay that has a grain similar to the deepest shadows in the original texture photo.

2. Scanned Image
Using a direct scan from a scanner will often yield a cleaner texture with less fuzzy edges or lighting issues. The following is one way to create a good source: Take a heavy sheet of white watercolor paper and paint a large square with black acrylic paint. After it dries completely, roll the paper tightly both outside and inside on the long edge to create some cracking and distress to the painted layer. Next, you can experiment with different tools to scratch off some of the paint. One of the popular ways is to take a wire brush (like one that you would use to clean a grill with) and scrape the surface with or at 45 degree angles to the grain. If you want an extreme distress, you can then crush up the paper repeatedly and grind it as well. Once you have the right amount of weathering to the surface, you can then flatten it out using a board with a couple of heavy weights sitting on top of it overnight, and the next day scan the result into your software (Figure 2).

In CorelDRAW, just follow the same pattern as with the texture photo, except you will want to invert the image to use the white of the paper as the distress overlay and make the black areas clear fills.

3. Vector File
Many artists tend to frown on manually created distress overlays – probably because they can tend to look synthetic or fake if they are not practiced and carefully done. The truth is, creating a vector distress has multiple advantages over organic textures, and it is definitely a process that every artist should be prepared to use for the right design. The biggest advantage is that you can control exactly where and how much distress you place onto your graphics. This maintains maximum legibility, and the visual impact remains unaffected.

To create a distress layer as a vector image (which is a graphic layer that is composed of pieces or objects in software like CorelDRAW or Illustrator, instead of a layer of pixels as in a photograph), you will need the right software and some knowledge of the basic tools so you can manipulate the distress pieces.

Distressed Artwork

A vector distress that is very effective and simple to create is a wood-grain overlay. This effect is created from one piece or slice of a vector. The process requires creating two curved lines that join together to make a sliver (Figure 3). You then duplicate this sliver and alternate its location in the same direction while placing different lengths of the piece at roughly right angles. Using this style you can quickly create an overlay that has very few nodes. (This is important because node points can slow down or crash your software if you get too many, and distress overlays that are vector are often huge culprits of crashes.) The resulting overlay is extremely clean-looking, and completely controllable in regards to where it breaks up the graphic.

Print Considerations
Screen printers who are comfortable printing simple designs for corporate identity, team sports and simple logos can have trouble when they incorporate a distress overlay into their graphic designs. Although the art approval can look great on the computer, it often creates issues with logo distortion, type clarity and underbase printing. Here are a few challenges and solutions to help avoid the top three distress problems that printers come across while incorporating a distressed look to their prints.

1. Distressed Effects Distortion on Logos
Corporations and teams can be very particular about how their logos are recreated. Even though they might request a worn-out look to their T-shirt designs, it isn’t uncommon for them to complain or even refuse an order if the distress effect alters or degrades their logo too much. If you know a customer is picky about logo clarity, consider an alternative effect or even a specific change in the area where the design needs to remain undamaged.  

A good solution is to modify or eliminate the distress effect on top of just the logo area (Figure 4, page 58). You can do this in a simple manner depending on how the effect was created. If you have a distress effect that was created with an overlay from a photographic or scanned source, you can just group the logo elements that you want to avoid the effect and move them to a layer or position above the distress overlay. In some cases, this might be the easiest and quickest possible solution. This is an especially important step to take if you have a logo or symbol that has fine lines or small details that a distress overlay might make incomprehensible.

2. Typographic Legibility
If there is one area that causes the most trouble with distressed images, it is the legibility of the type being broken up too much, making it hard to read. Sometimes a worn effect overlay will break up type in a crucial area, like the top of a letter T (so it reads as an I) or the bottom of an E (looks like an F). 

True story: Once, a large finished order was refused and returned to the printer because part of the design’s type said SHIRT, and the distress filter had covered the letter R up almost completely. Needless to say the customer was not happy with the resulting look.

The best solution to avoid this concern is to print out the design at full printing size on paper and review the distress prior to creating positive films. Looking at the design and the distress together at actual size is important because it will allow you to review how small the distress cracks and pieces are, and also how the filter overlaps or damages the legibility of the type in the design. Sometimes a distressed design will appear to be fine in a computer mock-up, and problems won’t look clear until it is actual size.

If it looks like there are issues, you can edit the distress filter to modify the extraction from the type in the design. One of the best ways to do this is to manually go into the art and create “knockouts” for the distress pattern so that it never totally breaks a type character into multiple parts.

To do this so that it looks more organic, you can create a simple shape on top of the type that gently trims the distress pieces as they get toward the middle of your type. If your distress overlay is a bitmap, you can first turn the trim shapes white and then group them with the distress image. Then, convert both of them into a new monochrome bitmap and then make the fill clear again. You will now have an edited distress overly in CorelDRAW. In Illustrator you should trace your distress to create a vector and then trim out the shapes, or export and edit the distress bitmap with the trim pieces as an extra layer in Photoshop and then re-import the combination of the two. This solution will insure that no character is totally broken and you still have a good distress filter effect (Figure 5). In the example, the original distress layer obscures the ‘A’ and ‘N’ in “Train Hard Never Quit”; the adjusted distress layer makes those letters more visible.

3. Underbase Registration with Distress Overlays
The reason this issue is particularly troublesome is that you will never see it in a digital mock-up of the design. The computer doesn’t know how to render a slight spread of the underbase ink, which will show out from the top overprinted colors. All computer mock-ups look perfect until the design actually hits the press.

The simplest solution that will fix the issue is to make sure you have an extra layer that includes all distress shapes in either Photoshop or CorelDRAW. You can then separate the underbase in a separate channel from the other colors in Photoshop and subtract a small outline to trim all of the edges of the distress shapes and allow the top colors to completely cover. In CorelDRAW, you can add a tiny white outline to the distress overlay pieces for just the underbase separation. Or if you have a monochrome bitmap as a distress layer, you can make four duplicates of the original bitmap and then nudge them a tiny amount in each of the four directions and expand the bitmap for just the underbase separation. These steps will ensure you have some allowance for the underbase to stretch or not align perfectly without being obvious in the final print (Figure 6).

Distressed graphics provide some of the best-selling and easy-to-manage effects for screen printers. To be consistently good at using distress patterns in your screen-printed designs requires both art and production to work together to ensure that the final product has exactly the right look.

Distressed Artwork

Thomas Trimingham has worked for more than two decades as an industry consultant, freelance artist and high-end separator. Contact him through his educational website: screenprintingartist.com.