The Starving Artist’s Guide to Printing without a Printer

by Zephos on July 31, 2011

It happens to every artist who’s ever owned a personal printer, after toiling for hours to put the finishing touches on your visual masterpiece, you finally power up your printer ready to materialize your baby into the real world, only to be greeted by this:

Printer Low Ink

I feel a song coming on. A song called "Let's Smash the Printer!"

Now I love my printer as much as the next person, that’s why when my printer encounters even the slightest snag in performing its sole purpose of existence, I immediately look for a flat durable surface to repeatedly smash it into until it isn’t the same shape anymore. Still, wouldn’t it be great if there was a better solution for when you need to print something other than really long emails regarding your newly found state of bankruptcy?

When you buy a personal printer, what you are really paying for is the convenience to print from the comfort of your home. This setup works great for people who desire said convenience or have a business sized budget to justify the costs, but what about independent artists who want top quality but are having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that their home printer is an ink guzzling, paper mutilating money sink with a penchant for grinding to a screeching halt at the slightest error? Four words…

Digital Photo Print Centers!
(Convenient & Affordable)

Well, technically 6 words and an ampersand if you count the capti… Wait! Come back! I’m serious! Although they don’t seem to advertise it for some ungodly reason, your friendly corporate giant’s digital photo printing center is an excellent place to get your art prints made at an outstanding price with surprisingly great quality that will often surpass anything a consumer inkjet can produce – and with 100% less technical problems! Many also offer unique options, such as printing a large format banner the width of a car or printing on a warm fluffy blanket suitable for strangling small mammals with – oh, and on coffee mugs too! Can’t forget coffee mugs! Not only that, but the prints are not restricted to a minimal quantity unlike offset print houses, so you can print as many or as few as you like without having to worry about what you’re going to do with the other 99,999 extra copies!

Many stores with digital photo printer centers also come with a great online system for uploading photos… errr, I mean artwork that makes it a snap to order prints (Artists kinda’ have to mentally replace every instance of the word “Photo” with “Artwork” when going to one of these sites)! As an important note,  you’ll probably have to re-crop or resize your images to match photo dimension standards (6×4, 5×7, 8×10, etc). This is especially true if you based your original artwork on a North American standard paper size (Letter, Legal, Tabloid) which is probably the most idiotic system for classifying paper by a civilization that has yet to be wiped off the planet (Legend has it that the Letter paper size was based on the length of some random dude’s forearm. The End).  It might seem like a bit of a pain, but it’s a small price to pay for paying a smaller price!

You might think it’s expensive at a glance to order by the print, but ask yourself this; how far has that $50 ink cartridge really gotten you in the last few months before drying up into a withering black sponge? Ink refill centers and DIY injector kits can save you money, but then again, you’re still the one paying for the paper and punching the lights out of the printer when it messes up, right? It also doesn’t help that the original company that made the cartridge made it as unnecessarily difficult as possible to accept 3rd party refills with a one way street microchip that refuses to reset ink indicator level. These company’s also love to tout the quality of their ink in their home printers as superior, but ask yourself this question, would you watch a movie at home instead of a theatre to get a superior experience? No! Would you buy your pizza from the corner grocery store to bake at home instead of go to a pizzeria for a superior meal? Hell no! Then why would you think printing from a home printer would give you superior prints?  – Take it to the printers!

My personal favorite Digital Photo Print Centers are:

Costco (Canada) (USA)

Despite common belief, selling ginourmas 1.36kg boxes of Goldfish Crackers and having a kickass photo center are not mutually exclusive qualities. Costco has been one of the fastest and most reliable places to get prints that I have personally gone to, and when I say fast, I mean order online, put on your shoes and drive on over to the nearest Costco pick up the order fast – no shipping fee involved! They’re quality, although a bit on the dark side in my experience, is outstanding for the price, definitely on par with the best inkjet printers out there that don’t have a French word as a prefix.  Only downside is that you must be a Costco member to print… is that even really a downside?

Kodak Galleries (Canada) (USA)

With the ability to pick up prints at any Best Buy & Future Shop (Canada) or CVS Pharmacy & Target (USA), Kodak Galleries is really the only service around that can give Costco any competition in both Canada and the US. Both are excellent services with a plethora of options, great print quality and competitive pricing. What it comes down to is what item you are specifically planning to order and which place you would rather pickup. In general, Costco is better for small volume and large format print size whereas Kodak Gallery has some great prices for orders above a certain quantity, notably their 8x10s. In my observation, Kodak Gallery also has more time sensitive special deals that might tip you over the edge in their favor if the right sale comes up at the right time.

Snapfish (Canada) (USA)

If you live in the USA, you’d be hard pressed to find a better option than Snapfish. They have some of the very best prices in the business, especially on 6x4s as well as routinely awesome special deals like 20% off your entire order. It also helps that they have a superior image upload system due to being direct partners with Flickr and I could probably write a few paragraphs raving about their excellent customer support. Their print quality may also be the best of the places I mentioned, as a poster I ordered from them had noticeably superior color accuracy. To add icing on the cake, they also have pick up locations to save on shipping, including Walmart. Only one small problem though, and that’s if you live in Canada. Currently, the Canadian isn’t quite on par with it’s American big brother in terms of special deals or pricing and doesn’t appear to have pick up options, but if you live in the USA, definitely give a shot.

Digital Photo Print Centers are  wonderful for an artist on a budget, but what if you want to spend top dollar to send your absolute best artwork to a client? Grab your wallets and get ready to explore the wonderfully (expensive) world of:

Professional Photolabs & Fineart Print Houses!
(Quality Printing & Money Disposal Facilities)

Let’s face it, most normal humans can’t tell printer quality if it repeatedly sodomized them in the face with a French Curve. You reach a point where the colors are accurate enough, there is no visible print pattern, and nobody outside of the artist themselves can tell the freaken’ difference unless they had the prints surgically engraved on their eyeballs and that might be the placebo kicking in (That or the searing agony of a thousand burning suns). This is where Professional Photolabs come in, for when you want that 10% difference and wouldn’t mind paying 1000% more to get it so that people with no artistic discernment in the slightest might be able to tell the difference – and it even matters sometimes.

In the USA, there’s a huge variety of excellent Professional Photolabs with a large spread of availability, the most famous in the business being WHCC and Miller’s  (Miller’s has a little consumer side brother named MPIX as well). Unfortunately, Canada’s professional photolabs and fine art print shops are typically segmented and only have a local serviceable area of pickup before shipping costs blast you off your budget by a few orders of magnitude. If you operate around Vancouver in British Columbia, I’m personally quite partial to Hambleton’s Fine Art Services, although it’s been a while since I’ve had the money need to print something of that caliber there.

In my limited experience, outside of what paper you print on, Giclée printing is really the only thing I’ve noticed that makes a substantial difference in quality for a digital artist. Giclée is often criticized as being a glorified inkjet, but it’s a freaken’ awesome glorified inkjet! It has a distinct advantage for digital artists who’ve had the foresight (Or lack of foresight) to create their artwork using the RGB color model, as Giclée is capable of reaching a tonal range that conventional CMYK printers cannot which I find great in my work due to my ungodly tendency to set color saturation to 100% on everything. If you’re going to take it to that level of opulence though, it doesn’t hurt to get it framed and printed on canvas either, although you might want to pay off that crippling financial debt you have on the sidelines first just in case.

Great! So now we have an option out there for quality enthusiasts (And rich people in general)! What about people who want to print off enough posters to crush a small family of rodents with? Well, for that we have the magical world of:

Offset Print Shops
(Quantity & More Quantity)

Do you have a business card with you? If so, chances are that they were made at an Offset Print Shop where quantity is quite literally everything. Offset Print Shops are a bit of a mysterious enigma, verging on the boundary between consumer and business and using base technology more than a century old, it can be a bit intimidating to dip your fingers into. This doesn’t change the fact that if you absolutely must have a number of copies with a trailing row of digits behind it, offset printing is hands down the best way to go.

One of the distinct benefits of offset printing is that the more you print, the cheaper each unit’s price gets, resulting in substantial savings in the case you want to build a paper fortress than can transform into 100,000 flyers by blowing gently on it. Offset printing is also well known for it’s crisp clear text which makes them ideal for things that you actually want people to read, like hazard signs… I like hazard signs. Unfortunately, the minimal print requirement is often an entry barrier for individuals and anti-redundancy enthusiasts in general who don’t want to print more than 50 copies of the exact same thing.

Offset Printing Houses can also be a bit complicated if you are not familiar with the technical aspects of it. There are some pretty important rules to take note of if you don’t want the print job to end in disaster as opposed to digital printing services which are more often aimed at consumers with no press preparation experience. This is why we have design schools folks!… well, either that or to make money off of a road paved with broken dreams.

I have yet to find a place in the USA that I have personally had good experiences with in the offset printing arena. However, in Canada, I highly recommend Jukebox Printing, they did some very impressive business cards for a friend of mine and have great deals if you order in the usual massive quantities typical of offset printing. Overall, offset printing is an excellent choice for when there is strength in numbers…that or you just really hate trees.

Well, there you have it folks, my little take on the wonderful world of  printing centers and their many names and variations! I have a lot to learn myself and hope to find even better options in the future! If there’s a place or procedure you’ve had good experiences with in your adventures in Print Land, please let me know! Thank you and happy printing adventures!

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dan May 27, 2012 at 12:23 am

This is really helpful! Props to you.

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