The Possibilities of Simulated Process Printing: An In-Depth Look at Full Color, Photorealistic Screen Printing

Emma Hewitt
December 1, 2023
The Possibilities of Simulated Process Printing: An In-Depth Look at Full Color, Photorealistic Screen Printing

Simulated process screen printing has changed the game when it comes to translating intricate designs, photorealistic images, and full-color vibrancy to a garment. This technique has become quite popular in the apparel industry, opening up a world of possibilities in bringing all kinds of art to life. Keep reading: in this post, we will guide you through the technical and strategic balance of simulated process screen printing, exploring the advantages, step-by-step process, and best practices to achieve jaw-dropping results.

Understanding Simulated Process Screen Printing

Simulated process screen printing pushes the boundaries of traditional screen printing methods. It relies heavily on an understanding of both color theory and technical precision, making it the best choice for full color, photorealistic prints. It works by breaking down an artwork into a series of halftone dots, a process that requires a deep understanding of how colors work together and how they will behave when used in the context of screen printing and layering colors next to and on top of each other.

Unlike traditional spot color printing, simulated process printing uses a more nuanced approach to color. Translucent inks are strategically placed and layered to achieve a vast gamut of colors, allowing for a seamless blend of hues and tones. This innovative method is particularly beneficial for designs that incorporate gradients and photorealistic images as it portrays subtle color transitions and intricate details with remarkable accuracy.

The application of simulated process screen printing is more than just a masterful tool for conveying detailed artwork; it becomes its own form of artistic expression. Printers and designers collaborate closely to balance the science of color mixing and the artistry of design composition. This collaboration often involves a keen eye for color harmony, an understanding of how ink layers interact, and a commitment to achieving the desired visual impact.

Simulated process printing finds its sweet spot when adorning T-shirts, where the fabric's texture and flexibility meet the demands of the intricate designs. Whether it's a bold graphic, a subtle gradient, or a lifelike photographic reproduction, this printing method transforms T-shirts into wearable canvases that showcase the limitless possibilities of combining art and science. As technology continues to advance, simulated process screen printing stands at the forefront, offering an exciting realm for creative exploration and pushing the boundaries of what is achievable in the world of textile printing.

Advantages of Simulated Process Screen Printing

Photorealistic Reproduction:

  • Simulated process screen printing is great for capturing the nuances of full-color, photorealistic images. Whether it's a detailed photograph or a complex illustration, this technique allows for the reproduction of fine details and subtle gradients that spot color printing just can’t get right.

Full-Color Spectrum:

  • One of the key advantages of simulated process printing is its ability to reproduce a full spectrum of colors. This is particularly beneficial for designs that require a wide range of hues and shades. With simulated process printing, you can achieve vibrant, eye-catching T-shirts that stand out in any crowd.

Soft and Comfortable Prints:

  • The transparent nature of the inks used in simulated process printing results in a softer feel on the fabric. This is a significant advantage for T-shirt printing, as the final product not only looks visually appealing but also feels comfortable against the skin.

Versatility:

  • Simulated process screen printing is versatile and can be applied to various fabrics, making it suitable for a wide range of apparel items beyond T-shirts. Whether you're printing on cotton, blends, or performance fabrics, simulated process printing adapts to the material, ensuring consistent and high-quality results.

The Simulated Process Screen Printing Process, Step-By-Step

Artwork Preparation:

  • Begin the process by creating or obtaining a high-resolution digital image of the design. Make sure that the image will be a good candidate for simulated process, with clear details and well-defined color gradients.

Color Separation:

  • The key to great simulated process printing lies in the accuracy and focus on color separation. Break down the design into buildable colors using specialized software. Each color is then assigned a halftone pattern, which determines the density of ink in that particular area.

Halftone Screens:

  • Halftone screens are essential for creating the illusion of different colors by varying the size and spacing of dots. The greater the density of dots, the darker the color appears. Halftone screens are applied to each color separation to achieve a smooth transition between colors.

Film and Screen Production:

  • Once color separations and halftone screens are finalized, films or DTS (direct-to-screen) machines are used to create screens for each color channel or layer. These act as stencils during the printing process, allowing ink to pass through specific areas onto the fabric.

Screen Exposure:

  • The films are used to expose light-sensitive emulsion on screens. Each color has its own screen, and the exposure process ensures that the emulsion hardens in areas where the ink will pass through during printing.

Printing Setup:

  • Set up the printing press with the prepared screens, aligning them precisely to ensure accurate registration of colors. The number of screens corresponds to the number of colors in the design, sometimes including an extra screen for an underbase depending on the shirt color and fabric content.

Ink Application:

  • Apply the translucent inks to the screens, and a squeegee is used to push the ink through the open areas of the screen onto the fabric. As each color is printed individually, the final result is a combination of overlapping inks, creating a full-color, photorealistic image.

Flash Curing:

  • Partially or fully cure certain colors or groups of colors to prevent ink buildup, maintain color integrity, and allow for a higher color count.

Final Curing:

  • Cure the printed T-shirts using a heat source, typically a conveyor dryer. Curing ensures that the ink bonds with the fabric, resulting in a durable and wash-resistant print.

How Artwork Separations Work in Simulated Process Printing

Full-Color Photorealistic Screen Printing Separations

Different screen printing shops will use different separation methods, but the primary choice, especially for simulated process and photorealistic printing, is Photoshop. Photoshop channels represent grayscale images that store specific types of information, such as color and transparency data. 

In simulated process screen printing, an artwork is pushed through software that analyzes color and transparency and translates it into different channels for each color to be used in the print. Simulated process differs from CMYK process printing in that simulated process prints are not limited to only cyan, magenta, yellow, and black; specialty colors and specific Pantones are used to recreate a full spectrum of colors by combining different percentages of each ink. Each channel allows you to control and manipulate the distribution of these colors to achieve the desired color composition with more depth and clarity than a spot color or even a CMYK process color print. By manipulating these channels, you can control the intensity of each color in different areas of the image. This is where the true power of Photoshop channels in simulated process screen printing is clear. For example, if a design has a vibrant red element, you might increase the intensity of red and yellow channels while reducing other colors. This allows for a precise adjustment of color balance, ensuring that the final print accurately reproduces the desired hue. Fine-tuning the channels is a meticulous process, requiring a solid understanding of color theory and an eye for detail. Changes always have to be made after the software creates channels. Technology is great and essential in this industry, but a human touch is necessary to find the correct balance and number of channels needed to recreate photorealistic digital images on a garment.

In addition to adjusting color balance and strength, screen printing shops will often use channels to create custom halftone patterns. Halftone printing involves simulating continuous tones by varying the size and spacing of tiny dots. Photoshop channels allow control of the halftone patterns for each color channel independently. This level of control is crucial for achieving smooth transitions and gradients between colors and ensuring that the final print captures the subtleties of the original design.

Take a look at this design from Spooky Woods Co., for example. The first image shows all the different channels used to create screens for this order. This photorealistic print came out incredible, all because of the attention to detail within the different photoshop channels. Just by layering a handful of colors, you end up with a vibrant, larger-than-life image on a shirt. 

Channels can also be utilized to isolate specific elements within a design. This can be particularly useful when dealing with complex designs that have multiple layers of colors. By isolating elements into different channels, you can focus on adjusting and fine-tuning individual components, enhancing the overall precision of the separation process.

Example of a Halftone Simulated Process Channel
Another examlpe of a Halftone Simulated Process Channel

Utilizing Flash Curing in Simulated Process Printing

Flash curing is a crucial technique in photorealistic screen printing, especially when dealing with high color count designs or specific garment types. This method involves briefly curing or drying one color before applying the next layer of ink. The primary tool employed for flash curing is a flash dryer—a device that emits intense heat to set the ink temporarily.

The purpose of flash curing is to prevent the colors from bleeding into each other and to maintain the integrity of the design. By partially drying the ink between each color application, you can layer multiple colors without the risk of smudging or blending. This step is particularly essential in achieving sharp and well-defined boundaries between different elements of the design as well as making sure colors remain true and accurate as intended.

The flash curing process typically involves exposing the printed garment to the flash dryer for a short duration, usually a few seconds. The heat from the dryer rapidly solidifies the ink on the fabric surface, creating a tacky but dry layer. This tackiness allows for the application of subsequent colors without the risk of unwanted mixing.

Flash curing is not only beneficial for preventing color bleeding but also for improving production efficiency. With the ability to quickly set each layer of ink, you can move on to the next color without waiting for the entire garment to go through the complete curing process. This time-saving technique is particularly advantageous in high-volume production settings where efficiency is paramount.

Additionally, flash curing is integral in making sure the print stays at a comfortable and minimal thickness. By partially curing each color before applying the next, you can control the buildup of ink, preventing excessive thickness that could compromise the final print's quality. This precision is vital for intricate designs and detailed artwork, ensuring that the printed image retains its clarity and definition.

Tips for Achieving Exceptional Results

High-Quality Artwork:

  • Start with a high-resolution, well-detailed digital image. The success of simulated process printing heavily depends on the quality of the artwork.

Mastering Color Separation:

  • Invest time in mastering color separation techniques. Precise separation is the key to achieving accurate color reproduction.

Halftone Mastery:

  • Understanding and adjusting halftone settings are crucial for achieving smooth color transitions. Experiment with different halftone sizes to find the optimal balance for your design.

Quality Inks:

  • Use high-quality, transparent inks designed for simulated process printing. These inks ensure vibrant colors and a soft hand feel on the printed T-shirts.

Attention to Detail:

  • Pay attention to the registration of screens during setup to avoid misalignment issues. Small errors in registration can lead to color bleeding and impact the overall quality of the print.

Conclusion

Simulated process screen printing has opened up new possibilities for screen printers and artists alike, allowing the creation of visually stunning, photorealistic designs with a full spectrum of colors. By understanding the intricacies of color separation, halftone application, and precise printing techniques, designers can master this process and produce T-shirts that stand out in a crowded market. As technology continues to advance, the world of simulated process screen printing is likely to evolve, offering even more opportunities for creative expression in the realm of apparel design. So, let Extreme Screen Prints help you embrace the art and science of simulated process printing, and let your creativity shine on T-shirts like never before. Contact us today to work our magic on your photorealistic designs!

Emma Hewitt
Updated:
December 1, 2023