At level 3, artwork may have more detail and more colors. If you are asked to do a series of designs for an awards program, prep

How to Get Awesome Artwork


Dane Clement is president of Great Dane Graphics, a company specializing in pre-separated artwork specifically designed for use by screen printers, embroiderers and digital decorators. Clement has been in the industry for more than 20 years designing artwork, is a frequent speaker at industry events, a regular contributor to industry trade publications, and author of T-Shirt Artwork Simplified, a full-color, step-by-step guide to creating artwork with Adobe and Corel graphics programs. Contact Clement at or visit

While you may have state-of-the-art equipment and experienced, professional employees, if you do not have great artwork, your business will still lack a key component to succeed.

One of the greatest obstacles for newcomers is figuring out this piece of the puzzle, especially when they have no art background themselves. Another challenge that shops face is increasing pressure to get jobs out quickly. When a customer wants something in only a day or two and has no artwork, this further complicates a shop’s ability to fulfill an order.

Cost vs. quality

Time is money and artists are selling time. How much a piece of artwork costs is more or less dictated by how much time it takes to create it. Experience is a close second. A more experienced artist is going to charge more per hour than a less experienced one. However, this higher cost may be offset by the more experienced artist being faster and able to produce a higher quality design that the customer is more satisfied with. So those are the tradeoffs to consider.

The more specific customers are and the more unique the look and style that is wanted for a design, the more time it will take to create. It is easy to lose money trying to figure out exactly what customers want and going through revision after revision until you finally have a piece with which they are happy. To avoid this trap, ask lots of questions, show lots of examples, and force the customer to approve artwork in writing. You also should limit how many “free” revisions you will do. A common policy is to limit the number of revisions for the included price, and after that, they will be charged at the normal hourly rate.

The echelons of artwork

Creating artwork for jobs can range from creating a simple black-and-white baseball to a full-color replication of a piece of museum artwork. These categories are intended to broadly represent the different levels. They can be used as a guideline to indicate what level of artist you may need and how much artwork might cost.

Category 1: This is the category under which your most budget-conscious clients are going to fall. It consists of simple line art for a one-color design. Examples would include a soccer ball for a rec team, a wrench for a plumbing business or a firefighter’s cross for a local fire station.

Whenever a design is needed for decorating, the first question is what process will be used? If it’s a single-color vinyl design, then simple vector line art is needed, and this takes the least amount of time to create than any other type of artwork. If the design is going to be screen printed, there are more options of what you can do with the artwork. For example, even simple black line art can be created with halftones to create the illusion of more colors. This gives it the perception of greater depth by varying the grayscale. It can be faded out at the edges or have a texture or effect applied to it. Distressed is a good example. It allows you to add variety and interest to a single-color design without driving up the price. For digital direct-to-garment, I don’t recommend doing a one-color design. It is possible when printing digitally that banding may occur in the print with large areas of solid color, which is common in color vector designs. If you use full color, texture, or gradients, the banding may still be there, but it will be camouflaged which could save the piece.

The type of fabric and garment color also affects how artwork is prepared. Vinyl can go on any color, but for screen printing or digital direct-to-garment, if it’s a dark shirt, then an underbase must be printed first. Many types of heat transfers can go on any color or fabric, but dye sublimation must be on a light-colored polyester garment.

Category 2: The next level up from one-color vector line art is multicolor. This level may include more detail than the first level as well. If the artist is asked to draw something like a specific car model or an animal like a tiger, time must be invested in doing research and finding reference images to use as a guideline.

In the case of vinyl cutting, this involves adding one or two more colors of vinyl. Each color has to be cut and applied one at a time, so more time is involved with this process, and the design has to be separated into its respective colors. For the screen printing process, it means the artwork has to be separated, and two or more screens are made. Digital direct-to-garment is ideal for this category as it does not require screens, and the separations are automatically generated by the machine’s driver or a raster image processor (RIP).

Even if line clipart is used, the design might be colorized. Color schemes must be selected that work in harmony with the design and the color of garment it is going on. Other details might be added such as type indicating the name of the event, date, location, etc. When this is the case, it is imperative that the artist be given all the elements prior to starting a design because space decisions can’t be made without it.

Category 3: Taking Category 2 to the next level may involve artwork creating a series of designs or multiple versions of the same design. Examples might be a preprint line or a program for a corporation or school, where all designs would be different yet related. More time is needed to coordinate a variety of designs as well as determine if they are going on the same style and color of shirt or a variety. It might also involve more detailed artwork or even multimedia.

Category 4: This category represents the highest, most sophisticated level of artwork that is going to take the longest to do. Most likely it will have fine details and require separations if it is screen printed. It may have more colors or require color matching. Realistic artwork generally takes the longest. An example might be a portrait or a full-scene illustration. It might also entail more sophisticated multimedia such as screen printing or digitally printing a background image and then overlaying it with embroidery, appliqué, or vinyl. This is the type of artwork where digital direct-to-garment printing really shines, and this type of design is much easier to execute using digital printing versus screen printing. More than any other process, digital printing is great for a design with lots of colors, fine detail, and photographs. However, for high volume, screen printing may still be the better choice.

In your search for finding the best solution for your business, knowing what you need and how fast you will need it is critical to choosing the best option.

Art styles and techniques

No one is good at everything, and this principle also applies to artists. Most artists have a few styles in which they are most proficient. Examples include cartoon, realistic, abstract, folk art, art deco, retro/vintage, contemporary, digital grunge, Victorian, psychedelic, and many more.

When creating artwork for a client, one of the most important things to find out what art style the customer wants. In many cases, the client is not going to know so having examples to display of past jobs that are similar or that show a range of styles will be helpful in narrowing down choices.

In addition to art styles, artists usually are proficient in a variety of mediums but not all mediums. Examples here might include digital art (the entire design is done on a computer), colored pencils, pen and ink, oils, acrylic paint, airbrush, charcoal, etc. When creating an original design, the artist may first create it in one of these mediums and then scan it into the computer to convert it into the format needed for the chosen decorating process. So, when you look at an artist’s portfolio, be sure to look to see if the artist is proficient in a medium that is going to work for the type of artwork you are looking for.

A third consideration is that some artists specialize in drawing, some in designing and some are what is commonly called a “production artist.” Just because an artist is proficient in painting and drawing does not mean they will be good at design and vice versa. In many shops, you will need to have both skill sets, so this may mean having more than one person.

If you are a contract decorator who always gets ready-to-go artwork, perhaps you will need only a production artist. This is someone proficient in the graphics software who can process designs but may not necessarily be all that skilled at drawing or designing. 

This article appears in Printwear's February issue. To ensure you can access this and other industry-focused pieces, subscribe today!