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6 Steps to Prepare Artwork for Screen Printing in Adobe Illustrator

One of the most ideal ways to promote your business, organization or event is to have t-shirts printed with a design of your choosing. It essentially can be used as a promotional idea and allows people to be a walking advertisement for you based on your shirt’s purpose. With all of that in mind, you definitely are going to want your product to have a rockin’ eye-catching design.

In this article we plan on helping you better understand how to prepare artwork for the screen printing process. If you’re looking for a general “how to go about creating a design,” stay tuned for an upcoming post about this topic.

The basics of this tutorial is that the artwork is separated into multiple layers of color, allowing printers to screen print them one at a time. We would also like to add that this can be subjective to the printer since there are probably a million variations on the process. With that being said it is important to communicate with your printer and check if they have specific requirements. By streamlining communication with the printer, it will often help to avoid any potential issues that may pop up throughout the process.

Step 1: Layers

When creating a design for screen printing, there are already a few questions we try to answer before ever getting started on creating the design.

  • How many layers will I need?

  • What order will they need to be printed?

  • How will the overlaying of the colors work once printed?

Now, the most reliable way to produce artwork for any kind of screen printing is by manually preparing it in Adobe’s program “Adobe Illustrator.” If you’re a graphic designer or looking to get more involved in the process of creating designs, you’ll develop a love-hate relationship with this program.

Back to the purpose of this article though, taking the time to separate layers is vital to the screen printing process. It will not affect how your artwork looks in the outcome, but it will definitely make it easier to work on and manage so you are able to clearly see what it is that you are doing.

To do this we suggest opening the vector design in Illustrator in Layer 1. From there, select the drop-down menu in “Layers” and we want you to select “Duplicate Layer” twice. This will create three layers of the same design. Then take a second to name each layer the specific color it will contain to help prevent any confusion in the future.

Step 2: Temporary Backgrounds

This step is important if you are going to be printing the design on a dark t-shirt or other dark material. As you create a fourth layer and label or “Temp Background,” a rectangle will appear. Give this rectangle a dark color and make sure it is separate (since we will be removing it later on).

A big thing with Adobe Illustrator is that you need to have the layers in a certain order. For this background we recommend dragging it to the bottom of your layers and enabling the “Lock” feature. When screen printing, each color will require a separate screen and the order they are printed is typically from the lightest to the darkest of colors.

Step 3: Removing Excess Objects and Outlining Strokes

As you begin on your first layer (the lightest color), you want to hide the darker colors by clicking on the “Eye” icon next to each name. This will hide those selected layers from being seen and you can add them back in at any point by simply clicking on that icon again.

Since the layers were duplicated in full, you want to remove objects and leave shapes that outline the design or text that are all used in your backgrounds. One key trick to outlining is by creating outlines from the stroke in your design by selecting the text and choosing in this order:

  • Object

  • Path

  • Outline Stroke

By doing this it will help with the consistency in the design in case things need to be resized. Especially since strokes often get pushed out of proportion when being touched up through the “Scale” tool.

Step 4: Custom Color Spots

So you’ve stuck with us this far and now your next step is going to be creating a custom color spot.

Select everything in the layer we were working in (the lightest color), and apply a light color to each object. You want to make sure that you avoid using pure white because you won’t be able to see those objects later on in the process during “separation checks.” Name this swatch “White Base” and select “Spot Color” from the “Color Type” drop-down list. This swatch will be in your swatches window with a dot in the corner to signal to you it is a spot color.

Step 5: Traps

Traps are not always required but they are an important aspect for some designs when transferring Adobe Illustrations to screen printing. Screen printing sometimes has an inaccurate nature, which can mean that we can’t always simply knock out the shape of one color and bring the next layer to print exactly over. By creating a “Trap” between the colors it will allow for those slight sways in color registration.

However like we said earlier, Traps are not always going to be required. In situations where the overall printing area is small, Traps can end up being insignificant and take more time than necessary to the design for these small areas.

If you’re interested in creating a trap however, Adobe has provided an in depth tutorial on traps and you can find it here.

Step 6: Checking Separations to Wrap Things Up

The hard work is finished and now you’re able to check to make sure your design has been properly prepared for the screen printing process. To check your separations one by one you will set your colors to overprint. You can do this by selecting:

  • Windows

  • Separations Preview

A window should pop up and you will check the “Overprint Preview” box. Then hide the CMYK separations by clicking the eye icon beside it. Your temporary dark colored background should disappear. Check the separations one by one and be prepared to move more into the Overprint process.

For overprinting you will want to uncheck the “Overprint Preview” box that you find in the “Separations Preview” window. After this, you want to hide all of the layers except for one and begin selecting in this order:

  • Window

  • Attributes

With all of these objects of this one color selected, check the “Overprint Fill” box in your “Attributes” window. Repeat this with every color.

One big thing you have to ensure before finally saving your file and being ready to send it to the screen printer, is checking that there are no CMYK elements left in your document. To check this you will do:

  • File

  • Print

Then select your printer as “Adobe Postscript File” and choose the “Output” option (you can find this on the left side). Select Mode as “Separations (Host-Based).” It will be here that if your printer icons show next to any of the process colors (Process Cyan, Process Magenta, Process Yellow or Process Black), you still have elements in your design which are set in CMYK colors.

Last Words of Advice

As everything is finally finished up and perfected before being sent to your printer, make sure to save your file as a PDF. While some printers will request original Illustrator files, not all of them will. However, a good printer will check your files and before the process has begun they will reach out to you about any issues. We suggest checking with your printer about what files they are needing to help bring your design to life in the best way possible!

Here at BOLT Screen Printing we pride ourselves in creating quality custom apparel that brings your vision to life. We have assembled a team of professionals, who strive to understand your goals and assist you with out of the box advertising and branding techniques. We combine our knowledge of all things apparel with your project goals in order to provide killer gear and a stress-free experience.

With an ambition to create premium quality vintage threads, Bolt was born. From our passion of creating the best clothing for our clothing store Opolis and our customers expressing the desire to see their designs on our high-quality apparel we knew the next step would be to open Bolt. After being in the industry for over 13 years, we've perfected the process of turning amazing ideas into even better results. Contact us today by emailing us at, or giving us a call at 405-493-9557!

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