Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Thinking In Black – Tips and hacks for working black in digital illustration

Thinking In Black

Black can be a trouble to work with when it comes to print, especially with all of the varying print processes, paper finishes and general variations with commercial printing machines, inks, screen calibrations and so on - working with a black is a headache and I'm sure many others would agree! So, I have put together some tips and tricks to assist with your projects - it can be a dark and treacherous path. This post will mostly focus on creative approach rather than the pure technical aspects of Black ( K ). Working with 4 colour printing and spot colours is a detailed topic in its own right which is worthy of a post.

Illustrators, painters, artists and photographers

Firstly, does it really need to be BLACK? When I say does it need to be ‘Black’ are there many things in the real world that are completely black? Aside from an all light absorbing, all-life-drinking black hole that absorbs all light and colour? Besides… that's something that;s not of our world as far as I'm aware. Looking at the world around you, you will see come to see how lighting, surface, atmosphere and texture will absorb surrounding colours, including what you would what you would call a black surface. For example, someone is wearing a black t-shirt, more often that not if, even if it is new, light will catch on the folds, the creases and the contours of the fabric giving the black fabric a slight hue or tint depending on the light source and ambience.
  Study things! I like to look at surfaces and objects that have an interesting finish for example : gloss surfaces, bottles, matte paint, skin, fur, hair, shadows, animals, sunglasses, cloth, etc. Another good source of reference of how to use light and dark with dramatic effect is
Chiaroscuro – do some research online - research Caravaggio (one of many artist's using this approach) and see what comes back. Caravaggio used light and dark with excellent dramatic effect framing the narrative in light and shadows. This is potentially subjective but hopefully... it will be food for thought – if its jet-black you’re after then please read on! ( I have attached a little image below with some dark but not black shading )

Illustration with a pinch of mood lighting! Left : a world of pure black and white without colours, the others... and bit of hue and tint

RGB controversial

Typically, I like to work in RGB first and then convert my files to CMYK afterwards, especially if I’m working on a bitmap illustration or digital painting. Why? Because working in RGB generally gives me more creative freedom in the beginning and it also allows me to move between digital and print at a later date anyway. This is a my preferred method when working on an illustration and by no means a rule, just a preference. I’m not the only one working this way. By doing a Google search I stumbled upon a commercial artist who also likes to work this way – this writer and artist goes into much greater detail about the in’s and outs of color channels on their blog. I recommend having a read at some stage – perhaps after you have read my post. :-)

Unexpected Results - a pleasant accident

I was always taught to work in CMYK for print and RGB for digital. I still champion this for working with professional printers as trying to print from RGB file may produce some erratic results, be it for leaflets printing, flyers, and other mediums. I accidentally ran a test print from Photoshop in RGB (Thinking it was CMYK) and the results were far more superior than the CMYK version. Both were printed on the same satin finish paper, on a Canon Pixma A3 with an impressive result. Despite my efforts and tinkering with the levels in the CMYK version to replicate what had happened In the RGB Version, I couldn’t produce the same results. I will make an assumption that my Inject printer translated the RGB to CMYK and just knew what I was after. I can’t complain too much as this project was sent to print and retained all the vivid colours and strong black colours Saying this, I still recommend trying to stick with the CMYK for design and print despite this result as this is typically what is asked - best to be safe, but something worth exploring for the future.

Digital - Add a Hue

Unless your are working in RGB and your artwork will remain for screen (digital) only. Then may be best to work withDesigner Blackcheck the numbers. Although the computer says it black (or you've had it calibrated) it is best to drop a bit of colour into the mix - and do test print it.

Have a little play in the Colour Palette - this is the picker from Photoshop

Tips + Photoshop!

If you are working on a image in Photoshop and have started in RGB and want to convert your artwork colour settings in Photoshop, don’t just click on “convert to CMYK” use the colour profile under edit instead as this will provide better results. Use U.S. Web Coated (SWOP) v2. Experiment with the different settings to get the desired finish.

Last Key Points!

  • Take heed of the colour warnings when you are in the colour picker window. This could save a lot of headache later on.

  • Let the printer do the leg work. Send your artwork to the printer and try to let them help you. A printer worth their salt will want to help you and have your return custom. To reinforce what results you could also send them a physical sample (saying like this please!) from your home printer – assuming you have a good quality home printer.
  • As mentioned previously, if you are working on an image with a lot of dark areas why not add a little hue / tint of colour? 20% cyan for example or some magenta/red for a warmer image.
  • Avoid working with 0, 0, 0, 100 K, as this best reserved for font/text printing and can your work charcoal appearance. Use a ‘Rich black’ or 'designers black' instead. 20, 20, 20, 100 k for example.
  • Avoid 100, 100, 100, 100, CMYK as this is reserved for crop marks and using this colour can drown the paper - no one wants drowned paper!
  • Don’t be fooled. Your screen can be way out of the sync with your printer. Do some test’s first and see what results come from your printer (even printing on your home printer cannot guarantee the finish you require when you send your work to print) So take note.

    Yes... black can be painful to work with! And can be tricky colour to tame!

Thank you for reading!

Monday, 10 October 2016

Consider The Brief : some short tips on writing a design brief

Contact paper black and white icon

Consider The Brief

Designer to Client!

This post has been written up to offer information with regards to setting up rough guidelines for setting a brief. Imagine answering the following...

Purpose & Plan

What is the purpose of the project? Is it to expand the business, launch new products or promote something that you are already offering to an exiting customer? In other words, you will need to have some sort of a plan and end goal in mind for the project. If you don't know what it is that you business needs it will be trickier for a designer help. With out a plan, even a loose one, you will end up going around in circles. Maybe ask yourself some of these questions :-

  • What do I want to get out of it? 
  • What will my return on investment be? 
  • Can this be achieved? 
  • Should I do this now? 
  • What is the competition doing? 
  • How can do it differently/better?
Those are a couple of suggestions.


Budget is important to consider as this will affect the amount of time that will need to be allocated to your project - factoring in deployment, build/design, concept and whether anything else needs to be considered.
If you have a larger budget for your project(s) then you may want to consider a cascading approach. This method, is far more open ended financially but allows for plenty of creative and innovative freedom, a designers dream. A draw back with this free flowing approach is that money and keep on going into a project, regular checks on the amount spent so far are a good approach and ball park figure should be offered in the beginning, especially with smaller business with tighter purse strings. The other method is a fixed price, this method for spending usually suits both parties, or so I have found, a draw back with this is that sometime contracts and prices need to sometimes be re-evaluated should there be substantial changes to a project specification. Favourite approach – Fixed prices discussed in the beginning. Factoring changes (or tweaks) requests will increase price as more time will be required.

Time Frame

Please take into account when you need a project to be completed, things can take time to finish in addition with other projects. Also, waiting to hand over all relevant information at the last minute will end in disappointment eg, sending all the photo's over for flyer an hour before a production deadline or as the designer needs to leave will not make the best of it... Get the relevant information such as, text, photo’s, FTP details etc over in decent time. The earlier, the better! Trust me on this one.

Target Market

If this is a design project that is yet to have a brand established have you considered who the target market will be? Is this for children, adults, professionals, tourist, artists, trade and so on.


Do you have an existing brand guidelines for your company? If you have any existing logo, colours, fonts, do’s and don’ts this may be required for the project to be completed.


Depending on the desired project, how do you intend to deploy the project? Will this be a small web banner, a flyer, will you be using a printer, will this be a for screen, will it be for print? It is worth considering how this may evolve in the future be it for print or screen. It is easier to scale a large file down or resize a vector than it is to resize a 60 px 60 px logo onto a bricks and mortar shop.


Is there anything in the that a designer can't do? Will it be for a certain target demographic, politically sensitive, have to fit on some something small, needs fit x y z etc etc

So, you have written a brief....

Dear Designer,
I want you to create something that brings value to the company, here includes the specification and the brief to expand my business! Thank you for offering your time and experience!

Hope this helps a bit!

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