Grunge t-shirts with distressed, large graphics that cover a shirt are crazy popular right now. It’s hard to walk into any store, whether it’s a discount superstore or a high-end boutique, without seeing this style shirt on nearly every rack. There are plenty of DIY t-shirt fanatics looking to create custom t-shirts in this style and odds are you’ve had a hard time finding a t-shirt printing company that can help you.
Right now everyone wants to create custom t-shirts that resemble the wildly popular Affliction and Ed Hardy Brand t-shirt styles. For the average Joe this can get expensive and even though “Affliction style t-shirt” printing requests are becoming very common, access to printers that can pull it off still aren’t. However, I have seen some dye-sublimation printers online that can do pretty nice all over t-shirt printing.
Your most cost effective printing method is probably going to be screen printing or possibly plot printing for super low quantities and one-offs, using one or two colors, but if you’ve ever tried to submit full coverage complex art to a screen printer you’ve probably had your art handed back to you to simplify it to a point that no longer achieves your goals. The typical set up for all over t-shirt printing requires one set of screens for each size t-shirt usually with a minimum order somewhere in the neighborhood of 72 pieces per size.
As you can imagine prices add up quickly. If you get creative, often times you can work within your screen printers screen size limitations and create some really cool effects derived from the style that Affliction and Ed Hardy use. This tutorial will show you how to create color separations in Adobe Illustrator from complex art quickly and easily. This technique can be used to create screens for custom t-shirt printing without oversimplifying your art.
You can use Photoshop, but there’s a couple reasons we prefer vector art instead of a pixel-based image.
With screen printing, it isn’t necessary for artwork to be vector, but if the design needs to be scaled to a larger size or includes text, it will look much clearer if the artwork is in vector. What exactly is vector? Vector art is created using mathematical formulas to create lines. This means that the artwork can scale really small or really large without losing integrity. This is unlike pixel-based graphics (like .jpeg or image files), which are made using tiny squares of color. With plot printing, vector art is a must, as the design is cut from a colored foil and heat pressed into the fabric. This technique gives the shirt more vivid, crisp colors and also offers a more durable design, especially with small details. Frankly, it’s just much quicker for me to rip separations from Adobe Illustrator.
Step 1: Create a New File
In Adobe Illustrator, create a new file that is the exact size your design will be. For the custom t-shirt designer I am using, they recommend my art be 11.8 by 11.8 inches. If you are working with a screen printer, ask what the screen size will be, so that you can set your file up to the exact size and maximize coverage. This saves you from a headache or a design rejection down the road!
If you already have artwork, open your design and copy it into the new file.
I’ve chosen a graphic that is overly detailed. It has gradients, grunge elements, and strokes – which are all really cool, but also make it more difficult for t-shirt printing. If you are screen printing, you can try and keep as much of this detail as you want, but with plot printing minimum size requirements, many elements may need to be increased in size or removed completely. Keeping in mind that my design will ultimately be 3 colors, I need to simplify what I have.
Step 2: Strip and Simplify your design.
- Add a temporary background color that matches the shirt color you will be using. This helps to eliminate any surprise white elements in your design and allows you to visualize the final product. Make sure you lock this background (⌘2), so it won’t interfere with your alterations.
- Delete the hard edge background and extra elements that aren’t needed in the final design. With plot print, avoid including any details that are smaller than 1.5mm.
- Change gradients to single color and reduce number of colors used. Only solid colors can be used for the plot printing technique, so it’s important to change gradients to one color. To add a fourth color to the design, I incorporate the t-shirt color. This won’t actually be a printed color, but instead will be “knocked out” of the design in later stages so that the actual shirt shows through. This is a clever way to add more design details without adding more cost.
NOTE: In this screen shot, I’ve got a color chart from my printer – these are all the vinyl colors they offer. If your print shop has limited ink color options, ask what they are so you can create a SPOT color palette, and ensure the design will be printed the way it is intended.
- Continue deleting small details and changing colors until all you have are three colors (plus the background/t-shirt color).
Step 3: Expand Any Thin Line Art
NOTE: this step is not a requirement for screen printing – only plot printing.
As mentioned above, all artwork for plot printing has a minimum size requirement of 1.5mm, so with complex designs, you must expand the size of some elements. Click on an element that is too skinny or too small, then go to Object > Path > Offset Path and enter a number that will make your line art large enough. This expands your artwork in all directions, so keep that in mind (my grunge texture was pretty skinny, so I used .75mm to make it work).
Step 4: Create Separate Layers for Each Color.
This is a really important step. For screen printing, each individual color is printed separately (hence the term “color separations”) and applied to the shirt one at a time. The easiest way to create separate color layers is to follow these steps:
- Create a new layer and name it “Separations.” Add three more layers INSIDE this new layer – one for each color – mine are aptly named “navy,” “orange” and “yellow.”
- Copy your artwork into the Separations layer and then hide your original layer so it won’t interfere.
- NOTE: Make sure your artwork does not contain any strokes, as they will interfere with the next step. If it does, expand any strokes you have and unite them with the object. (Object >Expand>Stroke and then in the Pathfinder palette, choose the “Unite” button.)
- With all artwork selected (⌘A), go to your Pathfinder palette and click the “Divide” button. This basically takes all objects and cuts everything that intersects into it’s own object. The result is a puzzle effect, with no objects overlapping. All pieces take on the attributes of the object that was originally on top – in this example, the navy pants are on top of the background elements, so where they intersected, those pieces are now all navy.
- Click on an object with the first color, navy blue is used in this example, and in the main menu hit Select > Same > Fill Color. With all the navy colored objects selected, go back to your Pathfinder palette and click the “Merge” button. This takes all the smaller pieces of the same color and converts them to one object.
- Move the navy object into its own sub folder.
- Continue the above steps with the other two colors – orange and yellow – then delete any of the remaining extraneous objects. (This includes the temporary background and t-shirt colored elements.
Step 5: Save!
You can now delete all extra layers you may have (such as the original layer with the unmerged artwork) and then save your file as an .eps file. The three sub-layers serve as separations for your design and will help ensure your custom t-shirt printer can print your art onto an awesome shirt!
For Screen Printing Separations:
Select > Print > and set Printer: to Postscript
Then Set Output to Mode: Separations (Host-Based) and Hit Print.
What you end up with is a postscript file (that will be distilled to a .pdf format with Adobe Acrobat) with all of your separations, knocked out, with registration and ready to go .
Step 6: At Home Mods
While your shirt will be pretty sweet as it is from the printer, it still won’t be as customized and crazy as the ones you see in stores. The best way to achieve the vintage or textured feel is to start with a good fabric foundation. A bamboo or organic heather t-shirt may cost a little more but the end results will be more authentic. To further customize your unique shirt you may even try using bleach, extra dye, or sewing on embellishments. There are plenty of DIY tutorials for t-shirt modification, so get creative!
Hope you find this tutorial helpful in creating t-shirt separations using Adobe Illustrator. Good luck with your custom t-shirt designs and happy t-shirt making!