How To: Stop Ruining Great Artwork

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I deal with a lot of artwork every day when I do high-end, photorealistic color separations for the industry. Typically, original artwork is created in vector programs, but because of the detailed, complex content or photographic element, they need to be separated in Photoshop.

My best customers send me high-resolution files that are at 300dpi or higher and are the final print size for the shirt. Also, they use artwork components that are also 300dpi and very sharp. I love these customers.

New customers who are not too familiar with graphic files typically send me low-quality JPG images. These images are often very poor and "soft" with lots of artifacts, and the image is almost always not the right physical size. The truth is, these customers don't really know what I need or what they have, so they just send the files. Or, in many cases, they send me what they got from the customer. Look at the difference between a good and bad image (Figure 1). The original (on the right) is 13" wide and 300dpi. Perfect. The image on the left is what the customer sent me originally. It is 3" wide and 72dpi. I had to go back and ask for a better image, which was eventually sent to me.

A lot of customers create a high-res file in Corel or Illustrator, but then ruin this great piece of artwork by saving it as a low-quality JPG image that is not the correct size. I can't tell you how many times I have emailed customers saying "is there a better piece of artwork or vector version of this?" The response is almost always "I have that – I didn't know you could use it."

The good news is that this problem normally happens just on the first few orders. Slowly, I train my customers to know what a color separator needs and how to not take a great piece of artwork and screw it up. Here are some quick tips:

  • JPG (or JPEG) file formats are known as Lossy Formats, and you lose information when you save the file as a JPG. The quality of the JPG ranges from 0 (junk) to 12 (very high quality). Here's a side-by-side comparison of the same image as a 0 and as a 12 (Figure 2). I can live with a quality of 9 or higher without having too many issues. If you insist on sending a JPG to the separator, then at least first make the file the correct physical size and do a "save as" and save it as a quality of 9 or higher.
  • JPG files "average" out areas of color; the lower the quality, the more "boxes" and "artifacts" you get around and in images. These areas often get worse when they are color-separated (Figure 3). There are a number of JPG enhancement programs on the market that are inexpensive and they will help improve low-quality JPG files. You can find these programs on the Web.
  • If you create an image in Corel or Illustrator and you need to send the image out to be color-separated, save the image as a PDF file. PDFs are cross-platform compatible (Mac or PC) and when they are opened in Photoshop, the person opening the file can determine the resolution of the file.
  • Don't screw up a PDF file by having the image compressed or sampled down. Check the PDF settings and be sure to click "Do Not Downsample" from the options.
  • If you feel the urge to save the file as a PDF, open it in Photoshop and then send the file to a separator – make sure you open it at 300dpi and you UNCHECK "Anti-Alias." Anti-alias is a graphic program's way of softening edges. This is great if you are going to print a full-color photo or print from Photoshop to your direct-to-garment printer, not for color separations because anti-aliasing softens what should be sharp edges. And, when a separator separates the colors, areas that should be sharp are really soft and then become halftoned before screen printing. Look at the same file (Figure 4) with anti-aliasing (right) and without anti-aliasing (left). The right image has a lot of shadows and shades of color. This is not what a separator wants.

If you create an image in Photoshop, work at 300dpi as the final image size. If you work in Corel or Adobe Illustrator and create files that must be separated in Photoshop, try to start making files PDF rather than JPG. That way the person on the other end can determine the resolution and can turn off anti-aliasing. Don't try to "help" by making the file a JPG just to make it smaller. If the file is too large to email, then simply use one of the online file transfer services. Great artwork can still be saved.

Scott Fresener is the director of T-Biz Network International and the co-author of How to Print T-shirts for Fun and Profit. He has been in the industry since 1970, producing dozens of video and DVD training programs and creating automated separation programs called T-Seps and FastFilms. He also runs the popular website and does hands-on training at Email him at