T-shirt printing is a major pastime and moneymaker at the moment, and improvements to techniques, consumer-aimed equipment, and digital printing just keep on coming. You can get designs onto t-shirts now that you could only dream of ten years ago: photographic images, custom designs, fine detail, and elaborate graphic artwork. Now, we’ve even cracked the code to printing gradients!
And the trick to gradients is… actually a literal trick. Infinitesimally small dots are printed in varying densities in order to play a little trick on our eyes when viewed from afar. So if you want to know how to create gradients and get them onto a t-shirt, all the special work is actually done in the design studio.
If you’re starting to think “so printing gradients onto t-shirts is impossible…” — don’t write it off until you’ve seen these dots in action! In fact, you probably have seen them before and haven’t even noticed. That’s how well this technique can work when you use the right tools, ink color, and let your creativity run wild.
To fully understand this t-shirt printing technique and figure out whether it will work for your designs, we need to start with how it’s done and why it’s done. Let’s start from the beginning and introduce you to all the custom designs you could be adding to your t-shirts soon.
What is Gradient?
‘Gradient’ is the word we use to describe the transition of one color into another. The transition is usually slow and smooth, so you can see all of the new shades created between spot color A and color B.
Our eyes see gradients in nature sometimes: one example of that is the sky as the sun is setting. The separate colors mix and bleed into each other, and you can’t see where one ends and the other begins. It’s a very pretty phenomenon, and it’s no wonder many of us want it on our shirts!
In fact, a certain form of gradient on shirts has been around for quite a while: tie dying! This involves mixing dyes and gradients onto white fabric, such as a white shirt, to produce spontaneous gradient patterns.
It went out of fashion for a while, but now it’s back, and people want to do even more with it. But, ‘spontaneous’ is a keyword when it comes to tie dye—you can’t really control it very well. The results will be different every time, and you won’t be able to create exactly what you have in mind. That’s why people began to look for a way to print gradients instead.
Can You Print Gradient Colors on T-shirts?
The very literal answer: no, not exactly, but you can create an effect that looks like a gradient. There’s one main difference between what we can see on our computer screens and what a printer can print that makes a real gradient impossible: translucency.
When you view an image of a gradient or gradient artwork on a computer screen, the computer uses translucency to blend the colors together and create an almost flawless transition. To make something translucent is to make it partially transparent, so you can see through it to some extent.
You can grab any element of a drawing or design in any art software and use a slider to choose its translucency. This can be done to any number of artwork, ranging from simple image prints, to beautiful gradients, to complex art and graphics.
When it comes to inks and printing, translucency is not a thing. We can’t tell the ink to suddenly be partially see-through for this part of the design—in fact, ink color can only be seen outside of images on our screens, on our garment of choice, by being the opposite of translucent.
What Printing Method Can Print Gradients?
There are three main printing techniques you can use, and each one of them creates gradients on your t-shirts: screen printing, DTG printing and sublimation. Each has its own strengths, appearance, weaknesses, and limitations, and the best one for you will depend on the kind of design or art you want to print.
All three of these techniques have something in common: half tone dots. Since we cannot use translucency, we need another technique that shows one color melting away into another. Halftone dots can do this by being densely packed together at the beginning of a gradient, and slowly becoming more spread out as that color fades out.
A second spot color will then do the same thing from the opposite end, and when they meet in the middle we get the effect of a mix of the two colors when viewed from a reasonable distance.
This is the oldest method of printing gradients. Screen printing works by pushing ink through a stencil and onto the t-shirt, but every color is printed separately. If you were screen printing a design of an apple tree, there would be three separate screen stencils for each color: brown for the trunk, green for the leaves, and red for the apples.
Most screen printed gradients limit the number of colors you can use in a design to between 5-8. This is because adding layer upon layer can get very expensive. Similarly, most printers and screens can only handle so many colors at once, thus setting a limit as to how many darker colors or brighter colors you can have on a printed garment.
DTG stands for ‘direct to garment’. This kind of printing uses a digital printer to print designs onto fabric. It uses water-based ink that does not sink as deep into the fabric fibers or look as bright as screen print ink. However, you can choose from over 60 million colors, and use as many as you like.
DTG printing can also handle photos and highly detailed designs, and can produce certain types of gradients. You can use this method for printed art regardless of shirt
Translucency is still impossible, so a one color fade-out into the fabric’s color is not an option. DTG also has a limited amount of space it can print on.
Sublimation refers to the process of a solid transforming directly into a vapor, without passing through a liquid state first. When we use sublimation ink to print onto polyester fabric, we heat it up to trigger the chemical change and in its gaseous form it embeds itself into the poly-fibers before returning to a solid state when cooled.
Sublimation printing also uses a normal inkjet printer— you just need to print the design with sublimation ink, and onto sublimation transfer paper. It can also handle vast amounts of colors, and create the effect of gradients (with the same translucency limitations).
Screen Printing vs. DTG vs. Sublimation: Differences
While all three options use half tones, they have different strengths and weaknesses. A screen printer, for example, will create a separate screen stencil for each color and print them separately. They can control the size of the dots by choosing the appropriate mesh count. These mesh counts decide how much ink is allowed through the screen mesh: higher mesh count means less ink and more detailed designs. However, of the three techniques, screen printing is the least detail-oriented, and they can only make the dots so small.
Both DTG and sublimation printing uses inkjet printers, which gives them a lot more freedom with colors and detail. They are able to print a copy of a photo onto a t-shirt just the same as they can print it onto paper. However— the results are not the same quality. Paper is a far more even and easy surface to print onto, and we cannot achieve the same results when printing onto fabrics. The fabric absorbs the ink in a different way, and its uneven surface makes details more likely to smudge into one another.
This means that although DTG and sublimation printing can achieve a smaller dot size than screen printing, they do still have a limit.
How to Print Gradients on T-shirts Step-by-Step
Method 1. Screen Printing
Step 1 – Optimizing the design
When creating a design for screen printing there are a few things to keep in mind. Firstly, you are limited to 8 colors. Secondly, screen printing works best with big bold designs that lack detail.
You can create your gradient by choosing a background color and two half tone colors to blend into each other. As screen printing cannot work with fine details, it is best for your gradient to be a certain size.
You also need to bear in mind how you use the same color in different parts of your design. If you’re using blue for part of a gradient in one section, but also as a block color in another section, the screen printer will have to make a choice about which to prioritize. A low mesh count will allow a good amount of ink to flow onto the t-shirt and create a bright, well filled-in block color. But it will make small halftone dots impossible to achieve— they will just blend into each other. But on the other hand, a high mesh count will favor the dots but leave your block color a little less full and bright.
You will also need to separate your design into different layers by color. This is usually done in software like Adobe photoshop.
Step 2 – Optimizing the colors
Depending on the screen printing company you use, they may only use a certain set of colors. This means they will take the colors from your original design and convert them to the nearest equivalent in their color set.
You can allow them to take care of this for you, or ask to choose the conversions yourself. You can also ask for the color information in advance and design your print with compatible colors from the start.
Since you have a limited amount of colors you can work with, it’s also a good idea to incorporate the fabric color into your design. For example, it would be a waste to print white ink onto a white t-shirt, so it would be better to leave it blank and use the fabric’s color as it is.
Step 3 – Print
Screen printing can have a high initial set up cost because the printers need to create all the mesh stencils you need for your design. But, if you’re planning to make a lot of t-shirts with the same design, the more shirts you print, the cheaper it will get.
Method 2. DTG Printing
Step 1 – Choosing your design
While DTG printing gives you a lot of freedom, there are still things that work better, and things to avoid.
Always remember that your graphic can’t be too detailed— if paper printing can only just handle it, then DTG printing definitely can’t! Gradients will work better when used over a larger space; the smaller it gets the more likely it is to drop in quality or not come out right.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the area you can DTG print onto is limited: you can’t print over seams and you can’t do AOP (all over printing).
Step 2 – Picking the best colors
Since DTG does not print colors as vividly as screen printing, it can be advisable to avoid printing light ink onto darker colors. The brightest results will come from printing your artwork onto a white background. This way it doesn’t matter how many colors you use or whether you use dark ink or light ink, because you know it will print as well as it possibly can onto a white background.
Step 3 – Print
DTG printing is great for creating small batches of elaborately-designed shirts. You can get a great amount of detail compared to screen printing, and the initial set up costs aren’t as high because you don’t need to custom make anything in order to start printing.
Method 3. Sublimation Printing
Step 1 – Design optimization and colors
Designing a sublimation print is pretty much the same as a DTG print. You can use all the colors you want, but you’ll get the best results from printing dark ink onto a lightly colored fabric. You also need to remember that colors can’t fade out into nothing, and halftone dots will always be used (and always be visible when you look closely!).
Sublimation printing can be used to achieve AOP (all over printing), so if this is something you want for your design, then sublimation printing is definitely the way to go.
Step 2 – Printing
You can take your sublimation print designs to a professional printing company to be printed, but remember it is also possible to complete the process from home, too! If you buy the right equipment, you can heat press your sublimation prints onto a t-shirt in around 50-60 seconds (pressing time).
The perfect gradient is not something we can produce through printing, but we can achieve wonderful effects by keeping to a few limitations. Each of these techniques (screen printing, DTG printing and sublimation printing) are good for different types of design and different kinds of customers, but you’re sure to find something that will work for you.
And remember you can get help from professionals when working with a company, so they can answer your questions and guide you through the more complicated parts of the process! Happy printing!