The Art of Prepress: How Artist can Utilize Basic Print Knowledge to Their Advantage.

Malcolm Gladwell states when I person practices something for 10,000 hours they then become an expert. I have been in printing since I graduated college and I am estimating my printing experience to be around 6,000 hours (You can do the math to try and figure out how much overtime I have done in less than 3 years!). Now I don't claim to be an expert by any means, but I feel confident enough to say that I have mastered the basics. 

When it comes to printing your art there are 3 basic yet important things to take into account:

  1. Setup

    • Size

    • DPI

    • Bleed

  2. Color

    • CMYK vs RGB

  3. Choosing a Printer

    • Printing at Home or Printing with a Vendor

    • Mom and Pop vs Big Business

Setup: Size
This may seem like a no-brainer but before you start any artwork you should take into consideration what the end product will look like. Will it be a postcard, or maybe a poster, or even a t-shirt? This is one of the most important things you should do before starting any art. Not all print collateral comes in the same size or dimensions.

If you make artwork that was intended to be an 11" x 17" print, it most likely will not translate the same as a 5" x 7" postcards. Not only because it is smaller but those sizes don't scale proportionally meaning you will end up cropping off some of the artwork when it is scaled down.

Another very important factor is when choosing a size you should choose something that makes it easy for your target audience to use. Countless times I have purchased art that was advertised as 11" x 17" poster when in fact it was 11.75" x 17.25" or other obscure sizes that don't fit nicely into frames. Your first priority is to be a great artist, your second priority is to make the best product possible and that means keeping your customers in mind. To help out below is a list of standard sizes that fit nicely into photo frames:

  • 11" x 14"

  • 11" x 17"*

  • 13" x 19"*

  • 16" x 20

  • 4" x 6"

  • 5" x 7"

  • 8" x 10"

  • 9" x 12"

Setup: DPI
This is a very common mistake that everyone (even myself) makes sometimes. DPI stands for Dots Per Inch and is also refereed to as PPI (Pixels Per Inch). This is very important and when someone is talking about making sure your art is high enough resolution they are referring to the width, height, and DPI. DPI is a common term in the printing industry because printers are actually printing dots on paper to make the image.

The standard DPI for printing is 300 DPI but I personally produce my artwork at 600 DPI.

You should be setting the DPI up BEFORE you begin creating. If you make the mistake of adjusting the DPI after you have finished your artwork you could be asking for a printing disaster! Below is a screenshot of Photoshop's new document window to show you where the PPI option is:

PPI Example

As stated above sometimes DPI is referred to as PPI. I know that not everyone uses Photoshop as their main program to create with, but any photo edited/drawing program should start out each document in a similar way, asking for the size and DPI/PPI of the piece.

Below is an example of what you print will look like with low resolution compared to high resolution:

This is why having the correct file size and DPI is very important when it comes to printing. Getting either one wrong can end with your art looking pixelated.

Remember, it may look great on the screen but always check your numbers! Files can be setup wrong but you may never know it until it is too late!

Setup: Bleed
Bleed is the #1 thing that I have seen most people forget! It may not seem important, but when you provide your printer a piece with no bleed you are literally asking them to do the following:


If you look at the above image you may note, "It isn't an impossible task!" but wouldn't you want a little more wiggle room in the event something doesn't go perfectly? Remember, the company you use as a printer is only as good as their equipment and it is hard to get equipment to print perfectly, that is why bleed is an industry standard for printing!

If you do not provide bleeds the printer has one of two options:

  1. Undercut the piece

  2. Cut to the edge and hope that it works out

If the printer decides to undercut the piece you will then negate the first setup basic I went over: Size. You may have expected an 11" x 17" print, but because the printer had to undercut due to lack of bleed you piece ends up being 10.8" x 16.8" which then turns into a hassle for your buyer who is looking for art that frames easily.

If the printer decides to cut  and hopes it works out then you are left at the mercy of the machine and that isn't always a pretty picture:

I put these images on a grey background so you can see how the printed piece would look on paper. As you can see the image on the left looks skewed, this is because presses can sometimes skew the print, or the print can fall slightly offset due to how the paper was fed. This is why bleed is necessary, to make up for what small errors the press may make while in production.

Color: CMYK vs RGB
I am sure most of you have heard, "CMYK is for printing and RGB is for web!" this is mostly true.

First let us explain what these acronyms stand for;

CMYK = Cyan, Megenta, Yellow, Black (There a various reasons why K stands for black. The print industry knows it means black, we just can't agree on why? Lol)

RGB = Red, Green, Blue

Now you may wonder why I said the first statement was mostly true. This is because in reality based on color theory RGB and CMYK are color spaces, CMYK is just a more common and easily achieved color space with printers, while most of our computer screens can handle a much wider spectrum of color which is why RGB is the standard for web design.

Without getting too technical with color theory here is a visual:

Color spaces are usually described as 3 denominational, but for the purpose of this explanation I will show you in 2D. As you can see RGB is represented as the yellow circle, while CMYK is represented by the magenta/purple circle. RGB has a much larger range of color variations while CMYK is limited, but still within RGB.
Don't let anyone lie to you, there are printers that can print within the RGB color space, but they are usually inkjet printers and it tends to be much more expensive to produce a print this way additional colors are needed as well as standard CMYK colors.
If you plan on producing your artwork with these special printers you can do your artwork in RGB, but I personally suggest you stay within the CMYK color space, and if you produce with one of these more expensive printers it will only add to your piece not subtract.

Be warned, if you produce your art in the RGB color space, but end up printing on a CMYK printer your colors could change dramatically (depending on what colors you use) from what you see on screen!

Choosing a Printer: Printing at Home or Printing with a Vendor

When decided if it is better for you to produce your prints at home or with a vendor there are a couple of questions you need to ask first:

  1. Will this be a high volume job?

  2. Do I have the tools necessary to produce this in house?

  3. Do I want to deal with producing it in house?

  4. What is the cost difference, and is it worth it?

High Volume Job
Will you be producing 1 or 100 of this particular piece? Depending on that number you will be better off doing it with a vendor who can easily produce a high volume job with ease. Most vendors will quote without a problem so don't be afraid to ask if it is worth their/your time!

Having the Necessary Tools
Creating collateral means having the tools to create the collateral. You can't produced screen printed t-shirts without screen printing equipment and knowledge on how to screen print. If you don't have the equipment to create a bound book, I wouldn't recommend trying to do that in house when a printer can do that for you without breaking a sweat.

You can purchase tools to create you work, normally the math should work out that it is less expensive to produce in house than with a vendor, but keep in mind your vendors capabilities as well. I don't recommend purchasing an expensive tool unless you have done all the math and have determine it is worth the effort.

Do You Want to Deal with the Added Work?
This is a serious question. Think about everything you have to do. Maybe the convention is coming up quickly and you still need to create other collateral. Or plan your table. Maybe you are wrapping up another convention and need to restock quickly. Do you have the time to do the additional work? If you do, then go for it! If you have grunts to help you do the work for free even better! If you don't the added stress might not be worth the small sum of money you will save. In the end it may cost you more because you put effort into something that distracted you away from a more important task.
I don't mean to be a downer, but before jumping to a yes or no make sure you have thought your decision out!

Is the Cost Difference Worth It?

I recommend comparing pricing from multiple vendors against your own in house cost. Remember in house cost is more than material. It should take into account:

  • Material

  • Cost of your time

  • Equipment replacement within (X) amount of years

  • Markup

I can't tell you how to price your work, but as an artist I would recommend a markup no less than 50% of the cost. Which means if it cost you $1 to produce it, you should be selling the item for no less than $1.50.

Without getting too involved with pricing I will wrap up this portion by saying don't waste your time on trying to produce high volume work when a printing company has the tools and manpower to do that work for you.

Mom and Pop vs Big Business
There are benefits and downfalls to both mom and pop and big business printers.

Vistaprint is a good example of a big printer. There are some pros and cons to producing with big printers and here is a list of a few of them:


  • Price

  • Easy to use storefront

  • Ability to order 24/7

  • Coupons and Promotions


  • Uncommon sizes

  • Vague paper stock descriptions

  • Somewhat hidden shipping cost

  • Unable to know what you are getting until you have already ordered it

Vistaprint and other big online printing companies have many advantages and should be weighed against what you need as an artist and business owner. I do believe it is a hassle free way of getting prints produced and can come in handy when you don't want to deal with the back and forth you may get with a Mom and Pop print shop. Additionally their storefront is very user friendly, open at any hour and the fact that they run many promotional deals are all bonuses that most mom and pop shops can't compete with.  

Even with all these pros there are some downfalls with large businesses such as Vista Print. One of which is their obscure sizes. They will often market their product as a common size such 8.5"x11" but when you read the fine print the actual size is 8.5"x10.98" (I am not making this up this is their actual size of their full page flyer). This is a common practice with large companies like this because by making the piece just slightly smaller they are able to print 1 or 2 more up per sheet which is why they can beat out mom and pop in pricing. With this information I will refer back to the common size section above. I know first hand as an artist it is important to stay profitable, but that means keeping your customers in mind which means you should be careful ordering with larger vendors unless you are getting exactly what you want. While searching through these large printers I also noticed they don't give the best description on the paper that will be used. This is only important if you have a good knowledge of paper, or what you have ordered in the past. Lastly their somewhat hidden shipping cost and the inability to know exactly what your finished product will look like could be a deal breaker depending on who you are. Even if you are saving money on the print if the shipping cost increases the price so it is almost the same as printing with a Mom and Pop shops you may want to weigh what is really important to you when producing your products. The is especially important if you don't get an opportunity to see what your finish product will look like until the transaction is already completed.

 When it comes to Mom and Pop print shops there are also some pros and cons to consider.


  • Local

  • Personal one-on-one service

  • Ability to see the final product before production

  • Little to no shipping cost


  • Price could be higher

  • Limited hours

  • Less likely to produce low volumes

  • Less likely to have a storefront

Disclaimer: I work for a small print shop and that is where I get all my work produced.

You may notice that the mom and pop almost complements the big business printers. I believe to make a decision that is best for you and your art is dependent on what you favor. There are big pros to working with a local small vendor such as being able to call and not be put on long holds or have to speak with a robot to get speak with a person. I think more accountability can be held on the vendors side as well since you meet them in person and they have a reputation locally that they must uphold. Another benefit is most local vendors will have samples of their work that you can view to get a very good idea of what your work will look like. Lastly since they are local many times you can pick up your finished product or they will ship in city for free saving you money.

With the pros there are also cons. Unlike big businesses they are less likely to be open 24/7 which means you are at the will of their hours. They most likely won't be able to work on your orders until their next business day. This also ties in with the assumption that they are most likely not going to have a storefront like big business meaning most of your orders will be through an in-person interaction or e-mail. Lastly another problem with mom and pop print shops is they are less likely to produce small quantities at competitive pricing. They are not receiving thousands of orders a day which help them keep their cost low like larger print shops. This means they may require a minimum order that might not fit your budget.


We made it! This was a lot of information to go over, but is very important. I have seen many artist neglect proper prepress preparation and it normally doesn't do them justice since their work is beautiful! 

Feel free to leave a comment or shoot me any questions you may have about peeping your work for printing!

Your biggest fan,