2012 is going to be my first year of tabling at conventions for my webcomic work and over the summer, don’t be surprised if you see multiple stories of my experiences (and failures) at figuring out how to best go about the convention process as an exhibitor. One of the first problems I encountered during my pre-convention preparation was that of print-making. Comics themselves, well, there’s only one real choice for those of us getting started: digital offset offered by the likes of Ka-Blam or Createspace. Alongside my comic book offerings (and the meager profit margins allowed by using these digital printers), I wanted to complement my table with prints of drawings that I have drawn or painted over the past few years. This decision started me down a two month long trek of researching nearly every printer, method of printing, and option I had available using my relatively limited budget.
The first thing I realized was that if I did find a printing source, what prints should I, you know, print? That in itself can be a daunting decision. What if I order 50 prints that no one wants to buy? Which prints should I start with and how many should I order? Most professional printers give bulk discounts in printing; the more you buy, the cheaper it is per piece. That meant right off the bat, I was going to be paying more than I’d like per print and most of the time, I’d still be forced to order more prints than I was comfortable as a starting point (I found 50 prints was a standard number for short-run digital printers). I started pricing out various online printing sources. Some I had dealt with in the past, others were recommended to me by fellow comickers. In an attempt to keep things short and get to the meat of the article, I left the experience unimpressed. In most cases, a run of 50 8.5×11” prints were going to run me about $1.25 apiece if I wanted them printed on even the cheapest cardstock that rated poorly on the brightness scale (the measuring system used to rate a paper’s white level, the higher the better). Scale that to larger prints (say, 11×17” ) and the price shot into the $3+ range with, at best, middling print quality.
This made me rethink what I was doing and why I was doing it. Why did my prints have to be run “professionally”? About ten years ago when I was fresh out of college, I spent 18 months working in a print shop as a pre-press technician. Digital print-making was just coming to prominence and I remember seeing impressive work out of top-of-the-line inkjet printers. Since then, I’ve only heard good things about the improvements made in the “home printing” sector of the market, culminating in my stumbling into a Canon demonstration at San Diego Comic Con last summer where the quality of the prints was jaw-dropping. I started doing research into modern inkjets and found that while professional calibre printers still run in the thousands of dollars, a new, cheaper subset of printers had arrived for the “prosumer” (professional consumer) market. Resolutions were higher, paper was better and cheaper, and six-to-eight color inkjet printers could be had without breaking the bank.
To avoid option paralysis, I narrowed down my choices to two printer companies with which I’ve had experience over the past decade, Canon and Epson. Both companies made a printer with the options and price I was looking for: large format (no smaller than 11×17”), borderless printing, and more than four ink colors.In professional offset printing, halftones are used to scale colors from light to dark and given the semi-transparent nature of ink, nearly every color in the spectrum (barring a few bright colors) can be accurately represented in a print. Inkjet printers are different in that the hardware either drops a bit of colored ink on the page or it doesn’t. Halftones aren’t used to gradually gradate colors from light to dark. It’s really technical and I admit I only understand part of how the different styles (piezoelectric, thermal bubble, etc.) of inkjet printers work and why they work that way. In the end, what a six color inkjet does is attempt to bridge this problem with light colors by adding more ink cartridges, going all the way to the eight or nine color printers you’ll see at the top end of the market. Both printers I was investigating, the Canon Pixma iX6520 and Epson Artisan 1430, offered more than four ink colors and 13×19” borderless printing while retailing in the $300 range.
The Canon Pixma iX6520 was a more straight forward printer. It offers the typical Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Key (black) colors while adding an additional black for printing text. It also prints at a quite impressive resolution of 9600×2400 dpi. If you’re looking to print primarily in grayscale or black, this may be the printer for you but I ended up choosing the Epson Artisan 1430, which offered two additional colors over CMYK, a light cyan and a light magenta. As I mentioned earlier, because inkjets fail to use a halftone screen, printing light colors consistently without looking “spotty” can be a challenge. The separate, lighter colors to handle this chore shore up this deficiency with the hardware. If you’re wondering why there isn’t a light yellow, it’s because the human eye isn’t as receptive to the color yellow as it is other colors. It simply isn’t needed. In the upper end printers, you’ll also see a green cartridge added to avoid the difficulty of mixing yellow and blue to achieve a “true” green.
Now on the to the fun part. You have a $300 printer. I’m sure some of you are aware how inkjet printers consume ink and you know that ink is where the real expense hides in home printing. Here’s how I got around the problem and ended up with a printer and nearly a limitless supply of ink for $130. To start, I found the $300 Artisan 1430 on Amazon for $260. I also partially chose the Epson because, for a limited time, Epson was offering an $80 rebate on the hardware. While this offer has since expired, printer companies are constantly running similar offers. With some patience and diligent checking on a site such as SlickDeals, you should find a similar offer in no time. The printer also came bundled with Photoshop Elements 9 and I eBayed that for another $45. After the dust had settled, I was into the printer for only about $130, give or take a few dollars.
But I still had to deal with the ink situation. I had heard of CISS (continuous ink supply systems) but had never used one and due to the Epson’s high quality archival pigment inks, I was skeptical of finding anything of equal quality in the aftermarket. I was wrong. After a bit of research, I found SohoJet.com, a company that makes CISS on the cheap. To boot, they were one of the only companies offering archival inks in their CISS, a sticking point for me. Their inks are dye-based compared to the pigment inks that come with the Artisan. Dye-based inks, while brighter than pigment inks, have a notoriously short lifespan before fading into the paper. A nice way around this problem is the relatively new market of archival dye-based inks. Still want to use a pigment ink? Well, another company calledInkXPro has you covered there and the price is still reasonable, about $120 for their pigment CISS. Anyway, back to the Artisan. I ordered a CISS that contained the equivalent of eight to nine complete sets of Artisan 1430 ink cartridges for $80, a mere pittance compared to the $130+ it requires to buy one new set of cartridges from Epson. I yanked my still-sealed ink cartridges out of the printer box and tossed them on eBay for $80, or the same price I paid for the CISS.
For those keeping track at home, that means for about $130, I now owned a 13×19” borderless six-color inkjet printer that will print me hundreds, if not thousands, of prints before I need to add one more drop of ink to the system.
But what about the quality? This was the final moment where I knew I had made the right decision by making my own prints. I expected the Epson to hold its own against most other prints I’ve seen in the past. What I didn’t expect was for it to absolutely annihilate every digital print job I’ve ever seen from an online printer. Before I get into comparison, I should quickly comment on paper choices. Paper will make or break your print. Matte papers don’t play well with high quality inkjets for the kind of work we’re doing with comics and art. The ink soaks into the paper. The linework isn’t crisp. The colors are dull. Glossy paper is too, well, glossy. It gives prints a “photography” feel, which cheapens the art slightly in my opinion. You may disagree and hey, that’s your prerogative. The colors on glossy paper are outstanding. For my dollar, the best print paper for artwork is found in the luster category, which is a kind of semi-matte paper that may initially seem a lot like semi-gloss (also a good choice for prints) but adds a nice satin look to the artwork that screams “high quality art”. After reading various paper-related photography forums and blogs, I settled on Inkpress paper. Moab is also a good choice, as are several other premium brands. Epson brand paper, while a decent choice, doesn’t review favorably compared to Inkpress and Moab and since they’re all in the same price range, I didn’t see any reason to go with it for my own prints. For 8.5×11” prints, I found paper in the $.50 per sheet price range. For 13×19” paper, it’s in the $1.25 price range per sheet. Very reasonable when you consider that these papers are MUCH higher quality than standard cardstock. This paper is in a different class and shouldn’t even be compared to 12 or 14 pt. cardstock commonly offered by online printers.
Back to the print quality. To show the difference in print quality, I scanned four pieces of printed material for comparison: the cover to an issue of Ultimate Spider-Man by Marvel Comics, a large-run offset job I printed last year (representative of the typical cardstock-based job you’d get by ordering prints online), the cover to a comic I had printed through the digital online printer Ka-Blam, and finally, the first print to come out of my Epson Artisan 1430. None of these images have been altered in the slightest bit and all four were scanned on the same scanner at 1200 dpi.
You’ll notice that even under extreme magnification, the Epson print holds up on a level that the others can’t compare to visually.
Now let’s pull back a little. The Epson is showing virtually no ink dot grain while all the other prints show either a halftone (the Ultimate Spider-Man cover) or, even worse, a very prominent rosette on the other two jobs.
Let’s pull back even further. Now, the other prints are starting to look respectable but you see that not only has the Epson held up better under extreme magnification, its color palette is also outstanding and jumps off the page. Part of this is due to the printer; the other is due to the vastly superior paper you are able to use by making your own prints, an option that isn’t available from most online printers (or in my experience, at all from online printers, who specialize in using the same sizes, papers, and quantities to provide the cheapest rates possible).
What does this all cost me in the end? Well, my ink is going to cost pennies per page. I can order sheets of 8.5×11” Inkpress luster paper for $.50 per sheet. That puts each letter-sized print at no more than $.55 apiece. For my 13×19” prints, paper is about $1.25 a sheet so each print will cost me no more than $1.35. I will never have to order 50 prints and risk not selling a single one of them. Every one of my drawings can be turned into a print in mere minutes. I can print any quality, any art, in any size up to 13×19” whenever I choose. I’ll be able to plaster my booth with high-quality prints, signs, and whatever I please for very little cost. All I have to do is sell about 20 prints to earn back the $130 the printer cost me at the outset and I’m free and clear until I run out of ink, which can be repurchased in bulk for about $50. To sweeten the pot even more, I can advertise all my prints as “archival quality”, which guarantees the print will last between 20 and 100 years, depending on whom you ask. Good luck getting that guarantee from an online printer.
Initially, I thought I was crazy for researching this path to making my own prints. After testing out the hardware, paper, and seeing the low cost of entry, I think it’s crazy that so few others have taken this path to print-making. As artists, we should follow the path laid out by our photographic brethren, who learned several years ago that paying someone else to print short-run or one-off jobs is a waste of our time, effort, and most importantly, our money. You can do it all yourself for less money and most of the time, with better results.