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Super-Slick, Screen Printing Separations with Illustrator

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Read Time: 21 min

For today's designer a versatile range of mediums exist to get your artwork seen. The problem with this versatile range of mediums is that they do not all exist on hi-res monitors.

In this tutorial, we will explore the process of taking your design from the screen to the shirt. Specifically, we'll address one of the biggest headaches for a designer - separating your design for print. The steps in this tutorial will show you how to keep your clients looking good, and your screen-printers sane.

Final Image Preview

Below is the final image, and separated layers, we will be working towards. Want access to the full Vector Source files and downloadable copies of every tutorial, including this one? Join Vector Plus for just 9$ a month.

Tutorial Details

  • Program: Adobe Illustrator CS4
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
  • Estimated Completion Time: 3 hours

Step 1

To begin, open a new document in Illustrator 15 inches tall by 12 inches wide. 15 inches by 12 inches is often the largest available screen-size when screen-printing. At this point we don't need to worry about setting the bleeds, we will be setting those using guides in the next step.

Step 2

With our newly created document, activate the rulers using Command + R and drag in 4 guides (click on the rulers themselves and drag onto art board) each 0.5 inches in from the outer-most edge.

Note: If your rulers are not displaying in inches, simply right-click on the ruler and select inches as shown below.

Step 3

For this shirt design I needed a reference to draw an anatomically correct skull. Having no access to an X-ray machine, I was able to locate a free set of anatomical skull references offered by Jimiyo and GoMedia! Pay a visit to Go Media and download the skull pack. Once downloaded, open it up in Photoshop.

Begin by grabbing the Selection Tool and hold Command while clicking the skull that you would like to use (I am using the second skull to the left in the bottom row). Doing this highlights the layer containing the skull saving you the guesswork of having to figure out which skull is where in the layers palette.

Step 4

With your skull of choice and corresponding layer selected, Right-click the Eye Icon next to it in the layers palette. then select Show/Hide All Other Layers. Now you will see only your skull on screen. Press Command + A to select all, then Command + C to copy, then head back to your Illustrator file.

Step 5

With our Illustrator file now open, press Command + V to paste the skull onto the artboard. Once pasted, Rotate and Move the skull to the center of the artboard, or to an area of your liking.

In the layers palette double-click the name of the layer that contains your skull and rename it "bkgd" or "Background." Also, click the Dim Images To button, and leave it at 50 percent (refer to the image below to see the exact settings I have used). Next, we need to lock this layer using the Lock Checkbox located next to the Visibility icon in the Layers palette.

To begin creating the black outlines of the skull, first create another new layer by clicking the New Layer icon in the Layers palette. Now rename this layer "black_outlines.” Refer to the images of my layers palette below to see exactly what I've done so far.

Step 6

Before we begin creating our artwork, I would like to discus enabling a swatches global color property and how enabling this feature can be extremely useful when designing apparel.

First, let me show you how to enable this property and then I will explain what it does. When you open your new document, your swatch panel will come predefined with various colors. The first thing that you should do is delete all of these colors except for black, white, registration and transparency.

Next, you want to double-click the white color swatch. When you do this a dialogue box will appear. Check the Global box and hit OK. Complete this same process for the black color swatch as well.

To add new colors, click the add new swatch button (shown below) and create your color using the sliders, enable the global color properties and select OK.

Note: You will know that global color properties are enabled if a small white triangle appears in the lower-right corner of your individual color swatches.

The reason why it's great to use the global color property is because it allows you to change any color on the fly without having to select individual elements in individual layers.

So, as long as you use a global color, then when your doing your artwork, by simply double-clicking a color swatch and changing its color value, that new color will globally replace the original color for both strokes and fills. Therefore, if a client were to suddenly decide they wanted a brown monster instead of a green monster, all you would need to do is modify your green colored swatches to be brown and your artwork would be updated. I will not be showing you how to recolor this artwork after we are finished, but I do want to leave you that option to change the colors as you see fit once you are done.

Step 7

To create this skull I used a Wacom tablet. If you don't happen to own one don't fret, you can still complete this tutorial. My suggestion is to refer to the Three-color Wolf Skull Tutorial, as I am going to employ a similar three-color method (base color, black outlines, and shadows).

For Wacom users, the next step is setting up our brushes. Begin by opening the brush palette, and selecting the drop down symbol located in the upper-right corner of the Brushes palette, then choose add new brush. Make this brush a calligraphic brush with the following settings:

  • Set the diameter to 9 pts, then select Pressure from the drop down menu and make the variation 9 pts as well. This allows the brush to go from a 1 pt stroke to a 9 pt stroke based on the amount of pressure you apply to the tablet.
  • Hit OK once you have entered the settings and select your new brush from the layers palette.

NOTE: As stated earlier, this tutorial is going to focus more on the end processes of reducing colors and separating artwork in preparation for screen-printing. I will likely, in the future, produce a more detailed design-process that I undergo to create a shirt's artwork.

Step 8

Select the “black_outlines” layer and then select CS4's new Blob Brush. Set the fill color to black and remove the stroke if a stroke color has been applied.

Note: If you are not using CS4 and cannot use the Blob Brush, don't worry. Use the normal brush with the Stroke color set to black and remove the fill color if a fill color has been applied.

In the first image below, I demonstrate how I create my strokes. Note the light pressure at the beginning of the line and the heavy pressure at the end. Using this method of variations in pressure, trace around the key elements of the skull that require a crisp black line. Using the same method, begin to shade-in the darkest areas of the image for depth. The two images below will help you get a better understanding of what I mean.

Step 9

Continue the process outlined in Step 7 until you are happy with your black outlines. Now comes an important technique to ensure edges remain sharp and neat. Select the Eraser Tool (Shift + E) and pick the brush we previously created to make our black outlines.

Reverse the stroke direction and begin to erase from the most heavily shaded areas to the least shaded areas using the variation in pressure technique (refer to the images below to see exactly what I mean). Notice that the lines are much more crisp and detailed after applying this method.

Step 10

Here are the final black outlines of the skull image. I have also added a thin mustache and eyebrows to give the skull expression.

Step 11

Lock the “black_outlines” layer and create a new layer (see Step 5) below it to use for our white base color. I have named mine "white."

Step 12

Now create another new layer above the “white” layer and name it "shadows." Using a light blue, or light color of your choice, begin to fill and outline the areas in and around the black outlines with the variation in pressure method used earlier. Knowing where and where not to put shadows takes time to learn. Even I can't claim to be a master at it. Nonetheless, it's a skill worth practicing.

Step 13

To give the skull some character, I added in Wayfairer sunglasses on a new layer, using the same method as before to create the glasses' outlines.

Step 14

Continuing with the method described above I added the skull's hands. The image of my layers palette shows how I have ordered each object. The different colors and shades that I have used all permit global coloring, which can be seen in the image of my swatch palette.

Step 15

You can continue adding elements to the design as you see fit. For this design I've added the text, "SKULLS" (the font is Neutraface 2 display, with a triple stroke applied through the appearance palette) and a number of balloon hearts acting as both background and foreground elements.

Step 16

With the artwork finished, we need to make a duplicate version of it for future editing and any changes that may need to be made. To do this, first create a new layer (see Step 5). I have titled my layer "9_color_version.”

With the duplicate layer created, highlight all of the layers in the layers palette except the “bkgd” layer and newly created “9_color_version” layer. With all the layers selected, excluding “bkgd” and “9_color_version,” click on any of the selected layers while holding Alt and dragging the selected layers to your newly created “9_color_version layer.” You will know it is working if a small + symbol appears next to your cursor as you drag the layers.

To finish up lock and hide (see Step 5) your new “9_color_version” layer for later use if need be. For Vector Plus members this will mean that the source AI file will open with a warning indicating a font is missing, though there is a final layer that has the type Outlined.

Step 17

You have now reached the point where you need to consider your production costs versus your sales. For example, if this shirt was for a lucrative client, such as a high profile band, or a large apparel company, your higher grossing sales will allow you to utilize more colors in your design.

However staying below eight colors is generally a good practice to follow. This is because there are simply not enough screen-printing shops capable of handling more than eight screens. And those that can will often charge you liberally for their specialized services. So, for the sake of your own sanity and your printer's, keep your designs to eight colors or less and remember less is more – restrictions can often lead to great design breakthroughs. Using these limits and researching different printing techniques and effects will help to maximize your shirt's monetary and visual value.

TIP: For more information on printing techniques check out Go Media's Designers' guide to the apparel printing industry and t-shirtforums.com for the latest in screen-printing techniques.

A good idea at this point is to create a version of your design limited to four colors. This way, you're able to present clients with two separate options with one being more cost effective. When choosing which colors to omit from your design, keep in mind that both black and white also count as a color. Therefore, if your design incorporates black and/or white you are limited to picking only two additional colors.

One way to go about choosing your colors is by figuring out which occur the most in your design. In the case of the skull design, pink and blue, in addition to black and white, occur most often. Therefore the next step will be to modify this design to only include blue, pink, black, and white.

If all these color restrictions seem daunting, remember that you can always use your shirt color as a color. For many printers, the holy grail of screen-printing is a bright design on a black shirt with no ink feel. Ink feel refers to the plastic-like feeling huge prints containing many colors give to a shirt when worn. My point being: if you can eliminate one color from your print by using the shirt color itself, DO IT. You shirt will look and feel better.

Go get a snack or a drink, it's time to take a break and come back recharged and ready for more.

Step 18

To begin the re-coloring process, first create a new layer (see Step 5) titled "4_colored_version.” Highlight the artwork layers that you copied before (Step 15) and drag them into your newly created "4_colored_version" layer. We are simply using this new layer as a folder to house our artwork to keep the layers palette organized. See the images below for reference.

Step 19

We are now ready to start reducing our colors. To do this we are going to make use of the Magic Wand Tool. I personally overlooked this tool until discovering this technique, and to be honest, I don't know how I was designing without it. The Magic Wand Tool samples the color of whatever object is clicked and then highlights all the other objects that use the same fill color.

You can now see the importance of watching your fill/stroke settings and why the Blob Brush Tool was used. The Blob Brush changes every brush stroke into its own individual filled object. As you overlap these objects with a similar color they continue to merge together creating, you guessed it, a blob containing only a fill color. So, when using the Magic Wand Tool to modify colors, you don't need to worry about having objects with the same stroke and fill color because none of your artwork has a stroke on it (minus the text of course, but we will cover that soon enough).

For those of you using the 3 color wolf skull method, here is what to do to expand your strokes and merge them into blobs:

  • Select all your strokes of a particular color. (clicking the circle beside a layers name in the layers palette will work).
  • Open the Object menu in the menu bar and select Expand.
  • Make sure the Fill and Stroke boxes are checked and click OK.
  • With your newly created objects selected, open the Pathfinder palette (Window > Pathfinder).
  • Click the Merge button. This will make all of your overlapping objects into one object.

We have already chosen our colors, so its time to start experimenting. For me, it took me a little bit of time to figure out how to keep the balloon hearts without losing their look and feel. My eventual solution was to alternate the hearts' color between blue and pink.

Next, create a new swatch folder by clicking the folder icon with the +& symbol beside it (located at the bottom of the Swatches palette). Name the new swatch folder "4_color_swatch". Now drag the 4 colors you will be using into the folder. Use the image below as a as reference.

Step 20

Now select the Magic Wand Tool and select the color you would like to change. In this case, I have selected the darkest blue used to color the heart balloons (Note in the image below that all other objects with the same dark blue fill color have been selected).

With these objects selected, a drop down menu for the fill and stroke color of the selected objects will appear in the control panel (located right below the menu bar). As demonstrated in my design, the dark blue color is in the fill drop down menu and the stroke drop down menu contains no color. Click the fill drop down menu and change this color to one of the four colors you have selected. In this case, I am changing the dark blue to pink.

Selecting with the Magic Wand Tool

Clicking on fill color drop down in control panel

Changing the fill color to one of my four colors

After color change has been made

Step 21

Use the Magic Wand Tool to continue re-coloring the rest of your work with the four colors you have selected. So to recap the process: select the object with the Magic Wand Tool, click the fill color drop down menu located in the control panel, then change the fill color to one of your four fill colors.

Note: in some circumstances the Magic Wand Tool method can be a bit finicky. One situation that can cause headaches is when it becomes necessary to change the color of a particular set of elements that have already been modified to one of your four chosen colors.

The Magic Wand Tool won't be able to sense what objects have been modified and will begin selecting the object you want to modify plus all the other objects changed to that object's color. The fix for this is good old Command + Z. Just back track until you're able to change the desired object to your desired color.

Step 22

With the re-coloring complete, here is my four color version of the skull design.

Step 23

Break time again! You're almost at the end, so do what you have to do, come back, settle in and lets finish up!

Step 24

It's now time to separate our colors. I know what you're thinking finally right? The first thing we need to do is create another one of those containment layers that we have been using to keep our layers palette organized. You know the drill, create a new layer and name this one "separations"(see Step 5) and place it above all the other layers, as shown below.

Step 25

This step is a little bit different from the way we previously copied our artwork from layer to layer. This time we don't want our artwork to be separated out by color and object. Rather, we want everything contained in one single layer. To do this, click the circle target button; next to the "4_color_version" layer in the layers palette. When done, your artwork should resemble mine in the screen shot below, with all the individual objects selected on the artboard, not simply the layers in the layers palette.

Step 26

With all of your elements selected, click and drag the selected art square that has now appeared beside the circle we clicked previously. Now hold down alt while doing this and a + symbol should appear next to your cursor. Drag this square into the “separations” layer and release. You should now see the outlined objects (shows that they were selected) appearing all the same color, rather than the rainbow appearance they had before.

In the layers palette you should now have copied all the objects from the "4_color_version" layer into the single layer called "separations.” Lock and hide (see Step 5) the "4_color_version" layer just as we did for the "9_color_version” (see the screenshot below for a better understanding).

Step 27

If you have added in your own text, it's time to expand it so we can include it in our separations. To do this, select your text and open the Type menu in the menu bar, then select Create Outlines. Next, select the Object menu from the menu bar and select Expand Appearance.

Finally, go to the object menu again and select Expand. When the dialogue appears, make sure the fill and stroke are both checked and hit OK. Your text is now ready for separating.

Step 28

With all of our objects still selected in our “separations” layer open up the Pathfinder. (If not open, go to Window in the menu bar and click Pathfinder to open it).

Now we are going to divide all of our elements. To do this, click the Divide button located in the second row of buttons, furthest to the left. This operation might take some time depending on computer speed and your design's complexity. Once divided, it will appear exactly the same as it did before. Don't worry, this is exactly what we're after.

The process of dividing looks at all of the objects held in a layer and divides them all up into something akin to a puzzle piece. Except, each color has its own designated piece that lies in conjunction with the edges of the other objects around it. I know it sounds confusing but let me explain why dividing is awesome.

By dividing, colors and objects that would have been underneath other objects have been replaced by the uppermost color and object. This is because we've layered everything to be overlapping where we wanted it to be overlapping. Still not getting it? Move on to the next steps and you'll understand what I mean.

Step 29

Within our “separations” layer, we're going to create four new layers – a black, white, blue, and pink layer, or whatever four colors you've chosen. Refer to the screenshot of my layers palette to see what I mean.

I Stress: These four new layers need to be inside your “separations” layer!

Step 30

Using the Magic Wand Tool, we are now going to click one of our chosen colors. In this case, I chose black. After clicking on black, all the other black fills will be selected from our divided artwork. With these black fills now highlighted, select Merge in the pathfinder palette (see Step 27 to locate the pathfinder palette). This joins together any overlapping elements and removes the choppiness you may have noticed in the inner part of the skull's mouth. See the three images below that highlight this step.

Select black with the Magic Wand Tool

Merge the newly selected blacks

Step 31

Once you've finished merging your black elements, keep them highlighted. Inside the “separations” layer look for a black square that appears next to the layer titled "<GROUP>". Click and drag this square to the layer titled "black" to place our newly merged black objects into the “black” layer. Lock and hide this layer (as in Step five).

Step 32

Repeat Steps 29 and 30 until all the other colors, including white, are on one of the individual color layers that we created earlier. Below are screenshots of me completing these steps for the rest of my colors.

Step 33

After completing the previous steps you should be left with five layers in your “separation” layer. These include your four color layers and the "group" layer. Now go ahead and delete the "group" layer, as it's no longer needed. The “group” layer only contains left over paths created when we divided our artwork for separation.

The first image below displays how these left over paths appear. The second image shows your completed separations all layered and ready for print.


There you have it. You've created a cost effective and costly version of your artwork and have now learned the process of dividing, magic wand selecting, merging and layering final separations. This system of separating, outlined in this tutorial, will work on designs with any number of colors. The only caveats to this system revolve around gradients and transparencies.

Nonetheless, don't hesitate to call a local screen-printer to ask how to set-up elements such as transparencies and gradients. Keep in mind, that if you're using an established screen-printing company it will often be the case that they have a separator on staff, or use new, high-end separation software. It does look good on you as a designer to prepare files for print, as it will gain you the respect of both your clients and the companies who will be printing your work. Oh, and don't forget, you can always recolor your separations using the global color swatch!

Thanks for reading this tutorial; it's my first with hopefully more to come. I encourage you to leave your comments and criticisms to help educate me on exactly how you all want to learn.

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