Friday, September 23, 2011

What does the Art Director mean by “I need you to clean-up your work for print”.

by Aidana WillowRaven

In the world of book illustration, you’ll typically find two types of artists: those who are fine art trained, and those who are graphic design trained. I am seeing more and more artists crossing and blurring those lines and performing tasks in both the “fine artist” and “graphic designer” traditions (often calling themselves ‘‘graphic artists’’ or ‘‘graphic illustrators’’ or some other combination), but the basis of the training for each is very different. Each approaches an illustration in a different manner and from a different perspective. They may sometimes use the same tool, but the way they use that tool can differ greatly. 

Understanding this difference is essential in my dealings with the artists at 4RV, and I assume it’s much the same with most ADs (Art Directors). I often have to explain to a fine artist what I mean by “I need you to clean-up your work for print,” where as a graphic designer usually knows what I mean already. This need to explain what “clean-up” means can frustrate an AD or publisher because to him or her, it seems stupid-basic-simple, unless they have a background in both traditions.

Hopefully, this post will help a few fine artists feel less flustered when their AD says, “I need you to clean-up your work for print.” It may also help your AD’s sanity if you already know what they mean when they say it ... lol.

Why does the AD think my work is “dirty”?

Let’s start with showing you what the problem is and why. When working with traditional mediums on artist papers, there tends to be a little bit of “dirt” surrounding the main elements of an illustration, especially if it has a lot of negative space surrounding it. 

When an artist uses lead or charcoal, for example, there is usually telltale dust from the medium that scatters on the paper surrounding the main elements in the drawing, or maybe there are faint sketch lines that were used in the building of the work.  In the graphic design world, these things would absolutely need to be removed unless the telltale dust or sketch lines were somehow desired for the work’s final effect; so most designers already know how. In the fine art world, these faint attributes add character and charm to a piece. It’s simply part of the art, and really isn’t even noticed or given much thought. Go to a gallery that has framed drawings (not prints, but originals), and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll notice similar bleed or run “dirt” on original watercolor or pen-n-ink work, as well.

 But, to get a fine art piece into a book, it must be scanned and made into a digital file. The scanning process involves a high intensity light to basically shine through your work and catch every bit of color, shade, and variance on the paper and interpret it in pixels on the screen. That means it picks up every finger print, every dust particle, every line, every smudge, then visually emphasizes it like a sore thumb. To make matters worse, once the finished layout goes to print, the printers emphasize that “dirt” even more, making the illustrations look muddied and unrefined. Can you see how art “dirt” could be a problem with the look and quality of a finished book?

So artists, don’t get offended when an AD asks you to clean-up the work. Nothing is wrong with it, other than it’s not ready for print, okay? So, if you’re not willing to pay a graphic designer to clean-up your work for print (designers in my area pull $45 an hour or more), then here are a few tips on how you, the fine artist, can do it yourself with the help of a photo editing program (like Photoshop) and a little patience and time. I’ll be using Photoshop for my examples and descriptions, but most photo-editing software does primarily the same thing; so edit these tips according to your own needs.

First step: cleaning-up the negative space.

If your illustration is not a “full bleed” illustration (which means full color or imagery goes past the edge of the trim line), then there is going to be some degree of negative space (area where these is no color or shading). Clearing these areas from medium debris and "dirt," even dust particles that got transferred from a dusty scanner, is the first and easiest step, though it can be quite time consuming.

In the chapter heading illustration below, you can see a lot of “dirt” surrounding the main elements. By the looks of it, the upper left quadrant is possibly due to scanner streaks left over from the last time the scanner was wiped down. On the three other quadrants, you can see paper edge. For the book’s purposes, all we want to see is the bat, ball, and chapter number. Everything else has to go. There are many ways to do this, but I am forever in a rush trying to meet a deadline, so I look for the fastest, yet effective ways to use the many tools PS (Photoshop) provides.

*Illo: a3 chapter 1*

 If you look on the left, you’ll see I’ve started with the polygonal lasso tool. This tool allows me to surround the main elements in a loose fashion (not to close to the image, just yet) by clicking at key spots and creating a series of straight edges. I then go to the top and Select-Inverse, which selects everything but what I surrounded, then I either erase or delete the space, or, if I want to be sure I don’t have varying shades of white, I’ll use my eyedropper tool to pick-up the paper's color and paint the selected negative space with a big brush size to ensure I fully cover the space. 

You can also use the paint bucket tool to dump large amounts of color at once, but sometimes the computer reads darker shades as separate colors, and it won’t cover as well, needing several dumps or odd variations, which is what we are trying to remove to begin with.

Once the bulk of the negative space is clean, now it’s time to refine the elements. Zoom in to get a better look and avoid potential damage to the illo (I should say now – SAVE OFTEN – I’ve lost hours of tedious work because I was too involved and focused to remember to save every few minutes. Unlike some other programs, PS does not auto-save nor does it keep a temp file that remembers what you were doing).

I am still using my digital pencil tool, but this time with a smaller brush or head size. I carefully paint over the remaining “dirt” so that the only thing my eye wants to stray to is the scene elements. 

Second step: adjusting brightness and contrast.

As I get to the upper bat section, I realize that this illo is really too faint to transfer into print well, so next, I adjust the brightness and contrast. A soft image is appropriate at times, but not in this instance. We really want the reader to see the bat, so it has to pop. Go to Image-Adjustments-Brightness/Contrast to get the pop-up window that allows you to adjust smoothly along two dials. In this instance, I darkened it by -50 and upped the contrast to 100.  Compare the before and after: *

before ~ after

Since this is a more personal sense of aesthetic, the settings will vary for each piece. Do try to remember, however, that all of the illos in a book should complement each other. So although each will have slightly varying settings, at some point you’ll want to view them side-by-side in groups to make sure they are set at similar contrasts and brightnesses.

In my next post I’ll cover what clean-ups need done in the positive space (in the area where there is actual art work).

Art Director & VP of Operation

*This post is meant to be a basic tutorial, not an in-depth course. Not all aspects of clean-up are covered here, just some basic ones.
*Today’s illustrations were drawn by the late Kipp Davis, for the soon to be released 4RV publication Girls Love Softball, and cleaned by WillowRaven since he passed before he could complete the task himself.


  1. Another helpful article, Aidana. I may not "clean up" illustrations, but it helps me better understand an illustrators and a designers job.


  2. I'm not an illustrator, but this is really interesting. Great information for artists.

  3. Aidana, you did a wonderful job. Not only from the skills in your head but from the goodness in your heart. I recall in his last days how he tried to almost stagger to his computer to complete this last segment which he'd learned how to do from you. It was a huge sadness he held in his last day at the hospital that he felt he had failed. And with all the busy-ness in your life, you stepped up to the plate like a champ. He's smiling down from heaven now. (Just got a note from someone interested in buying GLS for their traveling girls' softball team! Getting excited.)