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Using Halftones to Create Transparency in Shirt Designs

One of the great things about direct to garment printing (DTG) is the lack of limitations when compared to traditional screen-printing. They both have their advantages, but with DTG printing there is no limit to color usage and often a greater representation of detail. However, even with these advantages there are some techniques used in other methods of printing that can offer more control when it comes to your designs, such as those dealing with transparency.

In our recent post on Designing for T-Shirts, we touched on the idea of using halftones for creating transparency in your designs. As this is a technical, and fun topic, we thought it would be great to take a more in-depth look at this technique.

"Barbed Tongue" by krisvahl

Halftones are a “technique that simulates continuous tone imagery through the use of dots, varying either in size or in spacing, thus generating a gradient-like effect.” 1  Quite simply, that means if you want to create gradients or areas of transparency, halftones are perfect for this. They are a common technique when it comes to screen printing and not only allow for smooth gradient effects, but are also great for blending two colors together.

Example of gradient (l) and halftone version of same gradient (r) on black background.

Direct to garment printing can reproduce gradients, however this depends on what shirt color your design is being printed on. If your design with gradients is printed on a white shirt, it will most likely look good, however this might not be the case when it comes to black or darker shirts. In order for your design to be printed on a black shirt, a base-layer of white must be printed before the color layer is printed. Because of this, gradients and transparencies in your design that would normally fade smoothly might be hindered by the white base-layer. In the example above, imagine that as white ink printed on a black shirt. The normal gradient might print well, but when color comes in then it gets tricky.

In the image above, we show a blue gradient on the left fading away with a white under-layer printed underneath the entire gradient. On the right side we have the same blue gradient but created with a halftone. You can see that it fades nicely to black, as there would be a white dot printed beneath each blue dot, as opposed to under the entire gradient. Note: This is just an example, and not to say this is how the printing is always done, more to illustrate how halftones can help.

Hopefully you can see how helpful halftones can be. Not only do they look cool, but they will also give you a better idea of how your designs will be printed on both light and dark clothing. Now, let’s check out a few methods for creating halftones.

Technique 1

The first method is the easiest as you will be using a filter inside Photoshop. In the example below, we created a simple circular gradient. The gradient is flattened onto a black background which makes this much easier. In order to turn this into a halftone gradient go to Filter>Pixelate>Color Halftone, inside photoshop or using a similar filter in your image editor of choice. A popup window will ask you what radius you want, which is the size of the circles in pixels, and below you can choose the screen angles. I set each one to 0 as I wanted this gradient to be black and white. Now I can extract the white pixels from the black background, and place them in a new layer in my design.

Technique 2

In this technique, you are converting your design into a Bitmap as this will allow you to convert your gradients into halftones. When you apply this your entire design, it will be flattened and converted to grayscale, then what I normally do is create a duplicate of my design and convert the duplicate. This way you can extract the white pixels after conversion and then add them to a new layer in your original design.

To convert, go to Image>Mode>Grayscale, and this will strip the color information. Now you go to the Image menu again, this time choosing Image>Mode>Bitmap. In the first popup you will be asked to choose a Resolution and Method. I normally choose 300ppi, and then for the method use “Halftone Screen”. In the next popup you will have three choices,  Frequency which is the the size (10-35LPI is ideal), Angle which is the direction and most noticeable when using lines, and lastly Shape. Play around with this method, and you can see what it does.

A good example is in the work below. You can see the image is white, but in the closeup on the right it shows the design converted to bitmap for halftones. This method has a specific feel to it, but is great for blending colors or simply giving your images a sharper look when needed.

"Smile" by kentzonestar

Technique 3

This technique is a blast and also allows for more control. Halftone brushes! That’s right, you can totally use brushes that allow you to paint halftones on their own layer. This way you can easily change colors, mask areas out, and even change the size and style of the halftones on the fly. You can either create your own brushes, and we’ll have a blog soon on doing that, or you can get some pre-made brushes.

We highly recommend brushes by Kyle T Webster. Not only are they very high quality, but you get a whole bunch of brushes and they all respond to pressure. How cool is that? Check them out here.

Example of Kyle T Webster's Halftone Brushes

Do you have some techniques for creating halftones? Let us know in the comment below.  

(Header image: Flying Robot by wickedstudios)

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