Everyone loves to get fun mail! Send your bestie a Valentine's Day Card!

How to design for and print for letterpress (2 of a 4 Part Creative Process Series)

How to design for and print for letterpress (2 of a 4 Part Creative Process Series)

Last week I began to dig into my creative process. I shared how I come up with my ideas create my initial lettering sketches. This week I am going to share my creation process for inking, and some tips for scanning, and vectorizing my hand lettering. In the remaining 2 posts I will be diving deep into my letterpress printing process and finally how I package and ship my cards to you.

Lettering artwork for "You give me all the right feels" greeting card

Once I have my sketch, I take a good look at it and decide if there is anything I want to change. Generally, as a rule, I do not ink a final version of the artwork on the same day that I sketch it. The reason being that (besides the fact that my hand is tired from drawing*) I like to let the artwork sit for a day or two so that the next time I look upon it, I can do it with fresh eyes.

*(As an aside for anyone beginning to draw, you have to build up your drawing muscles just like you would anything else that requires movement from you to create it.

The cool part about drawing muscles is that as they get stronger and you have more control, they also gain muscle memory. All of the curls and swashes that you practice get easier and easier and more natural the more you do it.

The more you practice, your drawing WILL GET BETTER and more refined–you also will start to build your own personal style and put your own hand into your work.)

After that self imposed waiting period, I can easily see if there is going to be something that I am not happy with. If there is, I can usually can see a better way to make it work after some time off.

Some of the things I look out for are: I look for ways that my letterforms can use the space better, or I’ll think about different flourishes or swashes to make the piece more cohesive. Lastly, I think about decorative elements and how I want them to play with the overall lettering and layout.

I try not to over think my overall layout. I find that when I do that, my artwork feels forced and overworked.

If I had jumped to tackle the inking in the same day, I most likely wouldn't have noticed these adjustments in that first round. I make all of these decisions before I even pick up my pen.

If there are any last minute adjustments to the artwork I will use (sometimes multiple pieces of) tracing paper overlaid on the original drawing to get it to a final sketch. I try to imagine what the artwork will look like when it is done and I draw it in layers separated by what colors they are going to be printed when done.

Lettering sketches on tracing paper testing out different flourishes and swashes

For my new card line, I have limited myself to 2 colors per card. I used to do as many as 6(!?!), but letterpress printing, especially small reprints, is super time consuming–you can only print one color and one card at a time, so you can imagine how much time difference there is between 2 colors and 6!

A fun fact about letterpress in is that letterpress ink is transparent. When you layer 2 colors on top of one another a 3rd color is made. Knowing this can sometimes work to your advantage and sometimes not. It’s one of the things that makes this medium really fun. 

I print with one main darker heavy hero color and one compliment color that is lighter and used as an accent. From a design standpoint, it doesn't make sense to use the lighter color as a main part of the artwork. It won't really read or pop off from the shelf (learned that one the hard way).

I am finally ready to start inking! Enjoy this fun video time lapse montage I made of my inking my artwork!


Since I have already decided which lines and shapes are going to be the outlines and the dominant color, and which lines or shapes are going to be shading or non-dominant color, I know how I am going to separate my drawing on paper if it needs it (I know it will if the colors are going to overlap), or if I am going to do all my separating on the computer.

Drawing it this way mimics the way that I print the cards (one color at a time) so there are no surprises. This is also called making separations. When I lay the drawings on top of one another they should be all lined up and look like the final piece.

After I have my inked drawing, I scan it (them) into my computer.

I don't have a fancy scanner and you don't need one either.  I use the one attached to my black and white laser printer. I also know of some artists who just take a picture of their drawings with their smart phone.

Pro tip:
Even though I am going to be printing my cards in 2 different colors, I make all of my inked drawings in black and white so that once they are scanned they will be really easy to convert to vector artwork or to change the colors in photoshop.

Having your artwork at high contrast makes it really easy once you get it into your program of choice.

I scan the artwork at 300-600 dpi depending on how small the artwork is and I save it as a png. Once it is scanned I open it into Adobe Illustrator. At this point I could do one of three things.

  1. I can convert the artwork into a vector path using the simple convert to paths tool and manipulate the different settings until it looks the way I want.  
  2. I could manipulate the artwork in photoshop and clean it up with the different erasures and brushes but then the artwork will be pixels in the final piece and that’s not good for scaling or for making crisp letterpress plates. This will then translate to not very crisp lines on the final printed piece. BOO!
  3. I could redraw it in illustrator using the pen tool. This last process will make the cleanest and most precise of drawings–it is also the most time consuming.
Converting Hand Lettering to Vector using the Covert to Paths in Illustrator Tool Image for "Sorry I got Hangry" Greeting Card by Bunny Bear Press

Here is what I like to do:

I usually will convert to vector the lazy way, and clean it up. I clean it up by playing with the advanced settings, by simplifying the paths, or by going through the vectorized artwork and remove extra points and clean things up as I see fit.

Sometimes, very rarely, I will redraw it in illustrator.

Confession: I am actually pretty terrible at photoshop and try to avoid it like the plague.

As I was going through my creative process and re-branding earlier this year, I made the creative decision that I like the organic way my sketches look. Having a perfect clean vector look, while amazing, doesn't really work with the vibe and style that I am currently cultivating. The good news about me making that decision is that it is a lot faster to vectorize my work. Yay me!

Once I vectorize each sketch I stack them up on top of one another in the colors I am thinking of printing each of the separations in. I look to see how everything lines up and I ask myself:

  • Is all the artwork there, did I miss something?
  • Are the 2 colors balance aesthetically?

"Sorry I got Hangry" Greeting Card Vector Artwork in full color by Bunny Bear Press

At this point I will make any last minute adjustments to the artwork before I determine that they are ready to make into letterpress plates.

Setting up letterpress plate files could seriously not be any easier. I pull the artwork apart again so that each color is on it’s own separate grouping. I then make sure that all of the artwork is converted to 100% black.

Layer separations for making letterpress plates. Artwork by Bunny Bear Press. "Opportunity looks a lot like hard work"

I put those pieces into a separate file large file around 11 x 14 inches with all of my final plate artwork laid out together like a puzzle leaving about ¼ inch between each artwork plate.

The reason I do it this way is because once the plates are made it will be easy for me to cut them all apart with scissors and I can maximize the amount of artwork that I am getting in each plate order. Letterpress plates are priced by the square inch, so it’s just common sense to try to cram as much as you can as possible into every order. I use the size of 11x14 because they fit nicely in the USPS Flat mailing envelope so I can save on shipping costs. 

I use Concord Engraving for all of my photopolymer plates and I absolutely love working with them. Check them out if you are in the market for letterpress plate makers.

Next week I am going to dive deep into my printing process. This will probably be the nerdiest post I will write (even more than this one!!!) so if you are into learning a bit about how to use an antique letterpress machine then that post is going to be really interesting for you. 

This week I am sending random packages of things found in my move to friends and family. Find something in your house that reminds you of your bestie and mail it to them, I bet it will bring a smile to their face!


Adina Signature GIF 

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