Cheap & Beautiful Print Simulation Tutorial

I love inexpensively printed Halloween ads and packaging from yesteryear. The limited ink colors, yellowed or faded paper, the texture, the blocky quality of the print, the smudges and imperfectly perfect texture.

Every time I begin to think This Thing I Am Making Should Be Perfect, the entirety of old Halloween artwork, stories, movies, invitations, and decorations looms mightily and reminds me – no I don’t, flawed production is aesthetic perfection.

A simplified background of the printing process

Digital printing (home laser and inkjet printers and their commercial scale kinfolk) print all ink colors in a single pass of the paper, line by line, extremely quickly.

All printing before the early to mid 1990s (and most of it today) operates, in various degrees, with “plates”. This is to say all of a single color used — black, orange, whatever — is printed one at a time. The resulting final image is the result of each plate precisely aligning and layering on top of each other.

How we get to where we are:

Typically, printing presses are extremely large, fast machines that power through paper at incredible speeds. The process is subject to the mechanics of the universe and ergo plates and paper shift position ever-so-slightly and create — and I emphasize with quotes here — “undesirable” effects.

The effect we are after:

As I say above, analog printing uses plates for each color and as such the more colors used the more expensive it is to produce. Cheap printing uses 1 or 2 plates (colors), whereas full color printing uses 4 (or more) plates.

Seasonal pulp art printed materials were often printed quickly and cheaply as they were not meant to last nor were they considered high fashion. Halloween artwork often used 1-2 plates for large splashes of color, typically black and orange.

On a typical print job, pages where the plates misaligned were pulled and recycled. On cheap jobs, the press kept going as plates misaligned, adding flavor and creating visual artifacts and an aesthetic that I absolutely love.

How we get there creating digital artwork

1. Paper layer: You don’t have to start with a non-white background but I recommend it to lend authenticity and texture. Scanning or taking a photo of a paper grocery bag is a great start.

2. Black ink layer: Traditionally, black* is used for thick outlines and many of the background elements for depth.

3. Orange ink layer (aligned): On a separate layer, fill in the highlight areas with a flat, single color. It can be any color you want, but don’t use gradients or special effects.* This is how the “proper” prints would look while the plates are still aligned.

* Unless you want to bend the rules for a blend of modern and retro aesthetics — if that is your goal, then my squirrel go nuts.

4. Orange ink layer (misaligned): Now we’re getting to the heart. Take the entire non-black layer and shift at once. My personal preference is to start with 25 pixels down and the same amount left.

You can go down and right, or up and left, or just left (or right) — any direction or directions you want — the point is to slightly misalign the entire layer (“plate”) at once. Tweak as aesthetics guide. You are creating slight gaps between the black outline and the color plate.

5. Orange ink layer (adjusted): Using your preferred selection tool, cut out different parts of the color plate and adjust them more. You are optimizing the imperfection, a bit of an oxymoron to be sure, but this is art not engineering.

6. White ink layer (why not): Printing with white ink on non-white paper has historically been (and remains to this day) a bit more fussy and difficult than printing with color ink. The technical reasons escape me, but as far as I’ve been able to piece together through the years, ink is relatively translucent and designed to layer and white ink often requires multiple passes to be fully opaque.

For this tutorial, because we are making a digital product (or we are making a printed project with the paper tone from Step 01 being printed as well) it doesn’t matter.

Duplicate the orange layer, replace the orange with white, and repeat steps 3-5, but moving the ink plate in a different direction so it sticks out a little.

I put the white layer behind the orange layer (which is behind the black layer) for hierarchy and I exaggerate the white ink’s appearance even more than the orange’s. I review and shift selections from the white layer and sometimes even erase chunks around the edges to exaggerate more.

I’m using white ink here, use whatever works best for whatever you are making.

Evil Supply Co. is reader supported. DRM-free digital zines of stories and Halloween rambles will be available in the store when it re-launches (summer 2021). In the mean time, your sharing of this page on social media helps tremendously. Thank you!